Is profit driven affordable housing possible?


Last week at the Better Boulder Happy Hour (B2H2) we tried to talk about affordable housing.  The little nook at the Walnut Brewery was so packed that it was hard to even have a face-to-face conversation with folks, let alone do any kind of presentation that didn’t sound like an attempt at crowd control.  Which is good I guess… but not exactly what we’d planned.  I think a good chunk of the attendance was due to all the buzz generated by last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and the talk of a citywide development moratorium.  Anyway, it was a learning experience.  We want these events to be informative, but also to get people talking to each other, and have it be more fun and social and network-building than a brown bag seminar or lecture that’s mostly going to appeal to the Usual Suspects, who are already engaged.  We need to get more “normal” people to show up and engage on these issues.

In any case, Betsey Martens, director of Boulder Housing Partners (the city’s housing authority) got up and said a few words to the assembled crowd.  She made a point which is in retrospect obvious, but that got me thinking anyway.  The costs of creating additional housing in Boulder (or anywhere, really) can be divided up into three categories:

  1. Hard development costs — the cost of actually building the housing.
  2. Soft development costs — e.g. the financing and permitting costs, carrying costs associated with regulatory delay, organizational overhead, etc.
  3. The cost of land.

She pointed out that you can do all the work you want to reduce hard and soft development costs — using standardized designs, prefabricated buildings, streamlined permitting for affordable housing — but ultimately those optimizations just nibble around the edges of affordability.  The real driver of housing costs in a desirable place is the cost of the land, which is pretty irreducible.  If you’ve got a funding stream (as we do here from our inclusionary housing policy), then you can buy up a bunch of land and create housing on it, but there’s still an opportunity cost to be had for using the land inefficiently — the same money might have created more affordable housing.

The obvious way to attack this problem is to spread the fixed land cost across more dwelling units.  You may not be able to reduce the price of the land, but you can share it with more people, decreasing per unit costs, and increasing density.  Naysayers are quick to point out that all the density in Manhattan and Tokyo has not made them cheap.  A common response is that they’re cheaper than they would have been if they hadn’t been more densely developed, but I’m not sure this is really the right answer (even if it’s true).

Continue reading Is profit driven affordable housing possible?

Managed Lanes in Colorado

Will Toor and Mike Salisbury at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project have put together a good paper called Managed Lanes in Colorado (it’s a PDF) that looks at the policy rationale behind (and a few issues with) creating additional highway capacity in the form of managed lanes with tolling, that also allow high occupancy vehicles and transit to take advantage of the investment, addressing some of the “Lexus Lane” criticism of using tolls in the public right of way (on projects that are still mostly publicly funded).  It’s not quite as fun to read as my magnum opus from this winter on the same topic (US 36: For Whom the Road Tolls) but might be more appropriate for forwarding to policymakers.

US-36: For Whom the Road Tolls

If you live in Boulder, you’ve almost certainly noticed the construction along US-36 — aka the Boulder-Denver Turnpike. The main thing that’s being built here is one new lane in each direction. However, it’s not your average road-widening project.  Usually when additional capacity is added, it’s rapidly consumed by induced demand.  Instead, the two new lanes are going to be special managed lanes. What does that mean?


These new lanes are going to be optimized for mass transit, in this case buses.  It won’t quite be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), in which the lanes are used exclusively by buses, passengers pay on the platform, and board like you would on a subway or light-rail line.  The US 36 system will be somewhere between that and the express service that we’ve got now.  Even at peak hours, when buses are departing every 3-5 minutes, there will still be a significant amount of spare capacity in the managed lanes.   This capacity will be made available to high occupancy vehicles, and those that are willing to pay a toll.  There may also be a number of permits issued for electric vehicles, though how that would work remains to be determined.  The toll value, the number of passengers required to be considered “high occupancy” and the number of EV permits that might be issued will all be managed to ensure that the buses go at least 50 miles per hour.  The two general purpose travel lanes in each direction will remain free to everyone.

Continue reading US-36: For Whom the Road Tolls

Granny flats flourish after fee waiver… in Portland

In 2010 Portland, Oregon made it cheap and easy for people to build ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units — also known as “granny flats”, “in-law apartments”, “carriage houses”, etc — small secondary dwellings that are on an existing property), and to nobody’s surprise, the tiny homes boomed.  This kind of housing adds density without changing neighborhood character, lets people live lighter on the land, and helps makes housing affordable both for the renters, and the homeowners who now have a rental income that was impossible before.  And they do it all without any public subsidy.

Boulder can do this too.

The 2013 Rad-ish Council Candidate Forum

Last night seven Boulder city council candidates visited the Rad-ish Collective, an activist co-op that does a lot of volunteering behind the scenes of Boulder Food Rescue.

Candidate Literature

The candidates had some motley seating, including one stool made out of the back half of an old bike frame (Andrew Shoemaker) and a chair upholstered in what appeared to be a faux Yeti pelt (Sam Weaver). Half the walls were covered with murals, and the other half with event flyers, political literature, and all the daily household bookkeeping that goes into making a co-op run smoothly.

The crowd’s median age was probably under 25, and most of us sat on the floor. As the event progressed, more and more people filtered in, and those sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front slowly scooted forward until we were within reach of the candidates’ feet. Sam Weaver remarked at some point that it was probably the largest or second largest audience of any forum they’d attended, even though it was being held in a living room!

Continue reading The 2013 Rad-ish Council Candidate Forum

Reject the Annexation of Hogan-Pancost

Dear City Council,

I strongly urge you to reject the annexation of the Hogan-Pancost property.

A huge proportion of Boulder is already zoned for low-density single-family residential land use. This type of land use — especially when it is at the very margin of a city — is virtually impossible to serve with mass transit, and tends to be overwhelmingly car dependent, placing further development of this type in direct conflict with our goals as laid out in the city’s Transportation Master Plan and Climate Action Plan.

Low density single-family residential developments also tend to be made up of intrinsically energy intensive buildings — detached housing is expensive to make energy efficient because it has a lot of surface area compared to the volume enclosed, and most energy efficiency upgrades to buildings go into their envelopes. This type of development also tends to have a very large amount of floor area per person housed, which also increases per-capita energy usage. This, again, is in directly conflict with our Climate Action Plan goals.

This type of housing is also intrinsically expensive to produce. If it is to include affordable housing, it can only do so with large subsidies. Any such affordable housing will also end up being car dependent, which will serve to erode its affordability, since according to the AAA, the average American household currently spends close to $9000/year on car-related expenses. Thus, this annexation and the eventual development of the property into low-density residential is also at odds with our affordable housing policies.

I am strongly in favor of more of the right kind of development in Boulder — low-rise walkable mixed use density that’s accessible to transit and bike facilities, intrinsically affordable because it’s small, and easy to make highly energy efficient because it has lots of shared walls. Hogan Pancost does not fit the bill. Please reject the annexation proposal. Boulder is already too suburban.

Open space monies would be far better spent preventing the development of this property than ensuring that the Long’s Garden property remains agricultural in perpetuity.

For more information on the links between building types, transit accessibility, and overall household energy use, see the EPA sponsored study Location Efficiency and Housing Type: Boiling it Down to BTUs.

For an exploration of the ways in which cities and neighborhoods have been both successful and unsuccessful at increasing housing supply and affordability within the existing built environment, please see Unlocking Home, a white paper from Seattle’s Sightline Institute — especially the section on ADUs.

Thank you for your time and attention,

Zane Selvans (Transportation Advisory Board member)

If you agree with the above, please send City Council a note to that effect and CC the planning board: and Also consider coming to the public hearing on October 3rd.

Portland Retailers Love Bike Corrals

On street bike parking (bike corrals) have become very popular with local street-level businesses in Portland, Oregon.  I think it’s time for Boulder to regularize our bike corral program.  We need to get some decent non-diagonal racks in there with higher capacity, like the Portland racks, and also create a process through which businesses can request the racks, and get them.  Portland has nearly 100, by population, Boulder ought to have something like 16.

Cool Planning in Boulder

I spent the day at a workshop organized by the city with Smart Growth America and Otak, looking at how cities in the US can change their transportation and land use policies to create more livable, healthier, less carbon intensive, more fiscally sustainable communities.  Otak put together the Cool Planning Handbook for Oregon a couple of years ago, laying out the basic toolkit

It was nice to spend the day with a bunch of other Boulder folks, talking about our Actually Existing city, and not just abstract concepts.  We looked at huge printouts from Google Maps, and marked them up, with the current centers of activity and best potential locations for re-development along walkable, bikeable, transit accessible lines.  For instance…

  • The more intense development of the CU East Campus, to the point where it rivals the Main Campus in terms of square footage, with student housing and classroom space, in conjunction with the build-out of Boulder Junction and the Transit Village Area Plan just to the north will potentially create an eastern urban center of gravity for the city
  • Both the east Arapahoe corridor and East Pearl/Pearl Parkway will potentially knit that eastern urban core into the existing older core — the University, Uni Hill, and Pearl St… if we can create human scale connections between them, and mitigate a lot of the surface-parking blighted strip mall wastelands between them today.
  • Table Mesa, Basemar, The Meadows shopping center and the Diagonal Plaza could all be much better neighborhood hubs.
  • NoBo needs a grocery store.  Will it get one as the Armory and other planned infill goes in up there?
  • Could the service-industrial spaces along North 28th St. and East of Foothills Parkway between Valmont and Baseline be transformed into a walkable version of itself?  Lofts over light industrial spaces?  That kind of land use (which we do want to keep in the city!) doesn’t have to be such a sprawling mess.
  • What would it take to fully develop the Broadway corridor, both north and south, to provide the neighborhoods to the east and west of it walkable access to amenities without invading their space too much?
  • How can Colorado and 30th St. be made part of the new walkable core in the next 10-20 years?
  • How can transit oriented development (TOD) in Gunbarrel tie that outlying chunk of the city in with the core?

We talked about needing more buy-in from the origin end of a lot of our in-commuting trips — how do we get the L-burbs to give people access to the transit that can get them to jobs in Boulder?  Can they do TOD?  Can we have get better bicycle park-n-ride facilities?  And then, how do we make more of the city accessible to in-commuters that are coming on transit?  Can we get real BRT on the Diagonal?  On East Arapahoe?  All the way up and down Broadway?  What would it take to make the East Boulder office parks work for people who aren’t driving?  Where do they have lunch?  Or go to the dentist?

The day didn’t turn out to be a very contentious discussion.  After describing a particular policy option, our hosts often noted that we already had that policy in place.  From a technocratic point of view, there’s a lot of agreement on what we should be doing.  Our problem is actually getting it done — funding it, and building the political support and leadership to change the city.  And we need to change the city, if we are to have any hope of addressing climate change in a serious way.  East Boulder will never be walkable, and will never have decent transit service at its current intensity of use.  Similarly many of our single-family residential neighborhoods are too large and too diffuse to support any kind of non-conforming infill mixed-use — there just aren’t enough potential customers within the 5-minute/500m walking radius to justify adding new businesses.  We talk a lot about supplying amenities for pedestrians and cyclists and transit riders, but we don’t talk very much about actually supplying the pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders themselves!

My suspicion is that there’s a lot of latent demand for the kinds of things we talked about today, from people who are less engaged in the public processes.  University students are famously transient, but the population as a whole is persistent.  Younger professionals and the highly skilled technological workforce we have are somewhat more persistent, but they’re still prone to moving for career and family reasons, and that makes it hard to get them to participate in processes that often last 5-10 years (which is too long anyway).  A lot of the “interested but concerned” people who would like to ride their bikes if the infrastructure felt safer aren’t connected with bike advocacy… because they don’t currently bike.  A lot of people who would like to live in a slightly more urban environment aren’t engaged because any individual who brings that up in polite conversation hears something to the effect of That’s Not Boulder from the powers that be, and maybe they weren’t planning on living here for 10+ years anyway.  We need an organization that gives those people a voice, and that can be urged to vote in a bloc if need be.

There’s a kind of painful irony in the fact that the last time Boulder was transformed in short order was when we built out all of our sprawling superblocks.  The backlash against that and a lot of other mega-projects changed the way planning got done — here and elsewhere in the US — and made it much easier for a vocal minority to stop things they didn’t like.  That same bias toward hearing vocal opposition rather than broad silent support has paralyzed us.  Doing nothing is better than doing actively bad things, but we need to do more than nothing.  We need to un-do the bad things we’ve already done.

So I want another workshop, and here’s what I want it to cover:

  • How do we build political support for smart growth policies?  What community organizing tactics and strategies should we apply?  Who needs to apply them?  What regional and national organizations can support us in that?  Who are our core constituencies, and how do we activate them?
  • How do we fund all this work?  It was pointed out that public investment spurred the re-development of the Holiday neighborhood and NoBo, as well as the ongoing work in Boulder Junction, while a lack of public investment helped contribute to the land-use disaster that is the 29th St. mall.  If we don’t have a big tract of city land we can leverage, what can we do?  Long term, what’s the best way to reduce the per capita cost of building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure?
  • Assuming we’re going to get to climate neutrality by 2050, what does the city need to look like?  How will that transportation and land use system be different from what we’ve got now?  How many people do we need to have in the city to make it work?  What are the quantifiable waypoints between here and there?  What if we wanted VMT to be 80% lower in 2050?  What would that city look like?  What would Boulder look like if it had the population of Zürich, Switzerland (which is about the same area as Boulder) or the same area as Delft, in the Netherlands (which has the same population as Boulder)?  What if we un-developed a lot of the sprawling eastern areas?  What if we removed the Foothills Parkway?  These might not be the right changes, but they’re the right scale to be discussing.  Incremental adjustments to an urban form that sprang from the suburban building boom of the 1950s and 1960s won’t get us where we need to go.