From the Editorial Advisory Board: Housing subsidies

Workers place beams in the ground on the site of the Google development on Pearl Street and 30th Street in Boulder on Wednesday afternoon. (

Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

This week’s topic: Denver unveiled a plan this week to fund affordable housing by raising its marijuana sales tax, while Boulder opted to raise its commercial linkage fees for the same purpose. Your take?

Bravo to Denver for showing us what a serious commitment to affordable housing looks like. If the marijuana tax plan passes, Denver’s affordable housing fund will add more than 1,000 new units every year with $15 million in new revenue. By contrast, Boulder’s new $30 per-square-foot fee on commercial development is expected to fund 10 net new units on average each year. Ten units will help, certainly, but at the current rate of market appreciation, we can’t begin to pretend that the linkage fee is an affordable housing strategy.

If it were, the proposal would have come from, and been supported by, a broad coalition of affordable-housing advocates and providers. It would have been part of a broader package of financing tools that sought an equitable contribution from all the stakeholders that benefit from a diverse housing inventory. At a minimum, it would have been supported by the council members that best understand affordable-housing finance. What we got instead was "none of the above."

Time will tell whether this policy is as specious as it appears. The staff memo cautioned that "a fee higher than $15 per square foot is likely beyond a level that can be borne by many projects and may alter development decisions." If the goal is to stop growth of our office sector, I think we may have accomplished that. But if the goal is to fund affordable housing, let’s get back to work and take on something bold like Denver did.

Betsey Martens, betseyfmartens@gmail.com

Denver wants to tax potheads to pay for affordable housing because they still want commercial development in their city. And maybe fewer potheads. Boulder raised its commercial linkage fee once again because the council’s overlord, PLAN Boulder, simply doesn’t want any more development in the city of Boulder. In the interest of truth in advertising, PLAN Boulder should stop the charade and change their name to PLAB Boulder — Please Live Anywhere But Boulder.

PLAN Boulder has advocated for raising the commercial linkage fee from $12 to $129 a square foot but will settle for $58. They use the new Google complex as it’s the No. 1 example of why the linkage fee should be raised. At a mere $58 dollars a square foot, they think that Google would have gladly paid an extra $12,264,000 for the privilege of locating their business in Boulder. They claim this fee would have built 123 low-income units instead of the "paltry" 25 units Google paid for at the old $12 a square foot rate. Maybe true but maybe Google wouldn’t have built in Boulder at all. You can almost hear the cheers coming from PLAN Boulder supporters.

So who does PLAN Boulder really represent? The workers and their families who built the Google building and those who will work there? Or the aging population of trustafarians and retirees who want to sip their lattes without the bother of all those pesky people driving to work?

Chuck Wibby, cxwibby1@gmail.com

If our goal is cheap housing then we should give up. Boulder isn’t cheap and the carve-outs in the commercial linkage fees prove the back-end wage concerns of opponents while testing the limits of equal protections.

Owning my hypocrisy, a luxury non-elected officials share, deed-restricted commercial space may be good policy because I think we have a different problem. Considering all that comes with Boulder being an expensive place to live, I am not of the opinion that "affordable housing" is a problem that can be solved.

As I advocated when I ran for council more than a decade ago, a focus on who is missing from our community is a better use of public time and, once determined, perhaps a valuable use of public resources. If the object is a community where people can both work and live, then we need to encourage job growth in sectors where employees could support themselves in Boulder.

A scholarship does me as much good without money for books as cheap rent without money for groceries. If we encourage sectors with wages that can support a person in Boulder the likely result is less economic diversity for certain. However, the result would also be a stable community with the resources to meaningfully be inclusive of professions that are necessities (teachers, first responders as examples of a clear community benefit from proximity) rather than our increasingly stratified community. It is unwise and cruel to salve the guilt of prosperity with policies that in the near term will exacerbate the struggles of working people.

Shawn Coleman, slcbdco@gmail.com

The commercial linkage fees strike me as a terribly blunt policy instrument to achieve the goal of more affordable housing. Maybe it will raise funds for affordable housing, or maybe it will kill jobs and force us to raise property taxes to make up for the budget shortfalls we’re already facing, which will likely worsen in an anti-commercial growth policy environment. Working folks (you know, the people we’re supposedly building affordable housing for) need jobs to pay their mortgages, and a smaller mortgage coupled with higher property taxes is not more affordable. Anyone who says there are too many jobs in Boulder clearly has never lived in a community that struggles to keep its population employed.

The issue is not too many jobs, it’s that the residential development that has occurred hasn’t been the right kind. Large, under-occupied single-family homes are not and will never be affordable in this town again. Stop building them (restrict zoning or impose enormous luxury taxes) and start incentivizing the construction of accessory dwelling units and housing with smaller footprints such as townhomes. That will directly result in more affordable housing without risking our jobs, our city budget, and our identity as a community that celebrates innovation and entrepreneurship. I am one of those people who thinks it’s exciting that Google chose Boulder: it signals that we’re a smart and modern city, not one that’s going to be left in the past.

Jane Hummer, janehummer@gmail.com

I once interviewed Al Bartlett, progenitor of the Blue Line, deliverer of a famous lecture entitled "Population and the Arithmetic of Exponential Growth," and coiner of the phrase "growth must pay its own way." Hired as a physics professor in 1950, he arrived by car via Arapahoe — 36 didn’t exist — to a small town spreading northward below University Hill. His salary bought him a stone farmhouse on an acre near 19th and Iris. ‘

You’d have to be a CEO to buy that property now. Al lived to see housing prices that only his exponential growth curves could have predicted. In part, we got here by failing to heed Al’s warnings — we didn’t make growth "pay its way." But our current ills are also unintended consequences of having followed Al’s policies. The Blue Line and the greenbelt turned Boulder into an urban island, fostering insularity in real estate prices and political culture. We risk becoming a liberal-seeming country club with a university — which reportedly engages in country-club-targeted recruiting — in the doughnut hole.

We should ask: Are we truly opposed to growth, or simply resistant to change? Much of what we proclaim to be the former is really the latter. Truly committing to make Boulder more affordable would involve change on multiple fronts: density, accessory dwelling units, co-ops, and more. Discouraging commercial growth, while resisting these other changes, won’t slow housing prices, but will likely dampen tax revenues — a situation reminiscent of 1970s "stagflation." Sometimes, half-measures produce the worst of both worlds.

John Tweedy, john@landlockedfilms.com

The Camera’s editorial advisory board members are: Mara Abbott, Shawn Coleman, Michelle Estrella, Jane Hummer, Betsey Martens, Fern O’Brien, Andrew Spiegel, John Tweedy, Chuck Wibby and Don Wrege. (Judy Amabile, Ed Byrne and Steve Fisher are emeritus members.)

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