How conservation-minded cities like Boulder have driven housing inequality

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Cranes and a gaping skyline. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  cranes; construction; development; clouds; denver; denverite; colorado; kevinjbeaty

Cranes and a gaping skyline. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

For decades, Boulder has essentially banned sprawl.

While Denver and its neighbors have expanded endlessly to the east, Boulder has preserved an irreplaceable ring of green fields around its city core. At the same time, Boulder historically has not allowed buildings to grow very tall.

That limited approach to development is a major part of the city’s modern identity – but it also makes Boulder a front-and-center example of the social impacts of unaffordable housing, most recently in The New York Times.

A “growing body of economic literature suggests that anti-growth sentiment, when multiplied across countless unheralded local development battles, is a major factor in creating a stagnant and less equal American economy,” the Times reports.

Citing research by two Harvard University professors, the article argues that the modern housing market increasingly is forcing a separation of housing along class lines. Places like Boulder are picking up all the best jobs, yet they are increasingly inaccessible to a lot of people.

As a result, low-income and less-skilled workers may be driven to places where they’ll have less opportunity.

The Times traces this change to the fact that zoning laws have grown increasingly strict since the great suburbanization really got under way in the 1960s. One paper cited by the Times estimates that the United States loses $1.5 trillion a year in economic output to development restrictions.

Of course, those same laws have in some places contained the negative effects of development.

Hordes of cars stuck on Interstate 70 each day incur their own costs, and even a huge construction boom in downtown Denver has produced apartments designed and priced largely for “luxury” renters.

Still, more housing should mean more affordability – and that’s what some of the nation’s leaders are pushing for.

President Barack Obama last year proposed $300 million in grants to help local governments accelerate housing growth, including by rewriting development rules.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a law that would exempt housing projects from many local reviews, as long as they included enough “affordable” units.

Meanwhile, things in Boulder may be starting to change. Google itself is playing a significant role in preserving hundreds of new lower-rent apartments. In Denver, we’re waiting to hear how much property owners and builders might pay under a new “affordable housing” fee.

So what’s the long and short of this?

Well, the consensus seems to be that the best way to create affordability is to build a lot more, one way or another. The trick is doing that without overloading the city’s infrastructure or breaking the bank.