Derrick Robinson: How 300 and 301 will affect affordable housing

What kind of Boulder community do we envision? One that is vibrant and welcoming or one that is insular and clings to the status quo? This is the issue we are facing when considering Ballot Initiatives 300 and 301.

Thistle Communities, a non-profit real estate organization which develops, owns and manages nearly 900 affordable apartments and ownership homes, is concerned about additional costs and impediments due to more regulation. Since 2010 we have built 51 homes in Boulder; 24 are permanently affordable and 27 are market rate. The cash generated from the market-rate houses allowed us to do these projects with minimal public subsidy.

Unfortunately, this model of developing affordable housing is threatened. Land prices, permitting fees and the cost of construction have risen considerably, plus very few developable parcels remain in the city and competition is keen. If the initiatives pass, this type of development will become non-existent.

First, let’s consider ballot issue 300, which will allow neighborhoods to vote on changes to zoning regulations if 10 percent of the neighbors petition the city for an election. This will create over 60 voting units and allows a single neighborhood to trump a development that has a community benefit, such as affordable housing.
One efficient method of creating more affordable housing is through annexation of new parcels to the city. Thistle went through this process at our Rosewood development in North Boulder, where 50 percent of the 18 homes built were permanently affordable. Annexations require a change in zoning so they would be subject to a vote under ballot issue 300. If a neighborhood is allowed to veto any new annexations, the process will become even more difficult and expensive and could easily stop any new annexations.

When people think of affordable housing, adverse reactions to allowing it in their neighborhoods often follow. But if one sees the developments that Thistle has done, such as Rosewood, the appearance of the affordable and market rate is virtually identical. The difference is in the pricing which allows working families to live here and purchase homes.
At a minimum, this ballot will cause delays and added expense for new developments that have a higher component of affordable housing. At its worst, it will stop annexations and meaningful additions of new affordable housing units.

Ballot issue 301, “Development Shall Pay its Own Way,” is puzzling. We do not have any data that says whether growth pays its own way or not. Before voting yes on Prop 301, shouldn’t we know what these additional costs are? Supporters say this is not difficult or expensive to figure out. If so, why not figure it out and let the voters know what the potential costs are?
The necessity of affordable housing for new workers will be one of the costs and our concern is no specific language in the ballot states the additional fees go to affordable housing. We do know that the increased costs from the ballot will increase Thistle’s expenses.

Also, because 301 is vaguely worded, litigation seems inevitable. This will put new development on hold, possibly for years, and there will be little in the way of new payments-in-lieu that fund the city’s affordable housing program. Once the litigation is over and costs are known, land prices will have increased even more and the city’s affordable housing fund will be greatly diminished.

Concerns over new development have always been a topic of discussion in Boulder; lately discussions have become more intense. Instead of coming to a solution via representative government, the issue will be decided by ballots. The conversation of what Boulder could and should look like in the future will be hamstrung by a process that involves litigation and vetoes by neighborhoods rather than consensus-building within the city.
We believe that these ballots will make it more expensive and time consuming to provide affordable housing. Therefore, we urge a no vote on both.

Derrick Robinson is president of Thistle Communities. Joining him signing on to this commentary are Thistle Communities board members Joe Ballestrasse, Lilly Sorenson and Kyle Littman.

Article originally published by Daily Camera on October 25, 2015 and updated on October 27, 2015.