BW’s Top 10 news stories of 2023

CliffsNotes for Boulder County happenings in 2023

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1. Homelessness

Once again, the homelessness crisis was top of mind for many. It was a noteworthy year for many reasons, good and bad.

Student homelessness rose to its highest level in 10 years as more families struggled economically (more on that later). Overall, the people experiencing homelessness locally are getting more vulnerable, with increasing numbers of unhoused residents reporting disabling conditions.

Complaints about unsheltered homelessness along the Boulder Creek corridor reached a fever pitch, with voters eventually asking the City to prioritize removal near Boulder High School. Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging Boulder’s blanket ban — which prevents people from covering themselves with blankets or sleeping bags while living outside — made its way to court; a trial date is set for the week of Aug. 12, 2024.

Local leaders took several steps to expand services. A long-planned day shelter will open this winter after the initial location fell through. A sanctioned campground is potentially in the works, and the entire system of services will finally get a critical and comprehensive look to identify gaps.

Boulder County gave more money to help Boulder and Longmont shelters keep up with increased demand, and several programs were added for specific populations, with promising results. Pairing case managers with unhoused patients at Boulder Community Hospital reduced emergency room visits by 84%, and housing repeat offenders cut crime by 90%. 

A plan to help the hardest-to-house folks has been made that includes dedicated medical and behavioral health teams, peer supports and housing vouchers. Implementation — and funding for the $7 million proposal — is TBD.

2. Economic struggle

Times were tough in 2023. As COVID-era federal aid dried up, demand at local food banks reached 100-year highs. Boulder burned through its rental assistance budget twice as fast as the year before, implementing new rules in May meant to make the meager dollars last longer.

Nonprofits working with poverty-stricken families begged elected officials to raise the minimum wage. Boulder County did; cities promised to follow next year. The City of Boulder launched a new-to-here guaranteed income program

Monthly payments of $500 should make 2024 a little easier than 2023 — at least for those lucky 200 participants (who should be receiving that good news in the next couple of weeks).

3. Gains on housing 

A little light shone into the bleakness that is Boulder County’s housing crisis this year. More state money should start flowing in next year, and Boulder County voters decided to repurpose an existing sales tax for affordable housing. 

The City of Boulder took several steps to legalize more types of housing, including duplexes and triplexes, and loosened a 60-year rule on how many roommates you can have. Tweaks to building relations also could result in fewer big, luxury units being built.

Of course, the one thing that could actually keep rising rents in check — rent control — didn’t pass the Colorado Legislature, even though lawmakers made sure to give homeowners a break on property taxes despite voters rejecting their first attempt. Oh, well, maybe next year…

4. Historic elections

It was a good year for democracy: 52% of active Boulder County voters turned in a ballot, and residents in Erie and Superior took steps toward self-governance. (We stan a home rule city.)

Boulder had its first-ever ranked choice vote to pick its first-ever directly elected mayor. And the City Council race got spicy with a recount, even if the outcome didn’t change. 

While The People’s Republic continued to lean into progressive leadership — and continued its 13-year record of approving every tax it possibly can — Longmont voters said no not once, but three times to higher taxes. (Read more about Longmont in our 2024 stories to watch)

5. Disaster anniversaries

This year marked a decade since the 2013 floods and two years since the Marshall Fire — an important date, as that’s when most insurers stop covering living expenses for displaced homeowners.

As Boulder County recovers from its two biggest disasters (so far) it’s also looking ahead. Fire and flood protection plan updates are underway and scheduled to finalize next year, and the popular Wildfire Partners program expanded into East Boulder County, way beyond the Wildland Urban Interface we once believed to be the danger zone.

2023 was also the first year of new spending on fire mitigation, thanks to City of Boulder and Boulder County taxes. Will the extra cash help us be more resilient in the face of climate-fueled disasters? Only time will tell.

— Written by Shay Castle. Will Matuska contributed reporting.

6-10: Our personal faves

6. “Until we’re all home” by Will Matuska

Lyons got smacked by the 2013 flood. One County employee said the disaster took the town’s infrastructure “back to 1860.” While the town finished its final flood-recovery infrastructure project at the end of 2022, some residents are still displaced from the tight-knit community. 

One of those folks is Kriya Goodman, a school teacher and music therapist, who has been trying to get home to Lyons all this time. Themes like community resilience, disaster recovery, the human spirit and how a town turns to the future while respecting the past ring throughout this story. 

The introduction to this story is also an all-time favorite of mine. I’m a dedicated listener of The Tallest Man on Earth — the band owns some of my top live shows — and I was delighted to connect the lyrics he belted at Folks Fest to this story, and to the community as a whole.

7. “Prison system logic” by Kaylee Harter 

In a first-of-its-kind dataset published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, CSU’s Prison Agriculture Lab found that more than 660 adult state prisons across the country had agricultural programs — nearly 60% of all state prisons. 

This story (and the CSU data) examined who these programs actually benefit and how they reinforce the prison system and negative stereotypes about incarcerated people. It includes the voices of three formerly incarcerated individuals, the researchers and a Colorado Department of Corrections Spokesperson who stopped responding to me altogether after answering some initial questions via email. 

Prison systems are often opaque, but understanding what goes on behind their walls is important. This quote from a formerly incarcerated man stuck with me: “None of this is broken. It’s by design. [Cheap] labor is incentive for mass incarceration.”

8. The Rayback Series: “Risky business” and “Sunday School” by Shay Castle

These are my favorite kinds of stories: reader requested. Rumblings over Rayback’s hosting of a controversial church first started with a community member’s op-ed in the Daily Camera. Readers, dismayed at this use of a business they love, begged me to follow up with actual reporting. Part 2 was more interesting to me: schools renting space to upstart churches, helping them gain a foothold in the community.

Stories on religion are always tough to report. I drew from my own Christian upbringing to try and find compassion for all involved. Typically, it ended with just about everyone I spoke to being pissed off, but I think it’s a considerate look at the use of public and private spaces for religious purposes — and the tradeoffs we sometimes have to make in order to live in a truly free society.

9. “Wave your flag” by Will Matuska

Passion is contagious, and Ted Kaye has plenty of it. He’s practiced vexillology — the study of flags — for decades with the North American Vexillological Association. Kaye’s collected flags from around the world since he was a teenager and flies a different one outside his home every day. 

But not every flag is created equal, which is why Kaye wrote “Good” Flag, “Bad” Flag. We published this story shortly after NAVA released the results of a survey ranking City flags around the country. A few nearby cities got Fs, and some, including Boulder, don’t have official flags at all. The meaning of flags goes beyond the design — they can symbolize a town’s geography, politics, history, community and pride. 

10. “Hard rain” by Kaylee Harter 

I love stories that make us feel more connected to far-reaching corners of the world, and this one about how rain-on-snow events impact Arctic communities did just that for me. 

I had the chance to talk with researchers from across the globe about NSIDC’s four-year study on rain-on-snow and how it impacts Indigenous communities. 

“The Arctic is right here in Boulder in many ways, because what happens in the Arctic is not going to stay in the Arctic,” NSIDC Director Mark Serreze, who’s based in Boulder, told me. “The Arctic is raising the red flag of climate change, and it’s going to affect us all.”

The story also examines how researchers can work with communities and build trust without just parachuting in — something I think is important for researchers and journalists alike.