Same as it ever was

BW revisits its first cover story


“Boulder’s accelerating growth spurt is the hot topic in every bistro and boardroom in town. And right at the heart of it is the question of available housing,” so reads Boulder Weekly’s first cover story published in 1993. The article went on to say, “the good news is that there are plenty of houses for sale in Boulder. The bad news is that most of them are going for more than $200,000.”

Wouldn’t $200K houses in Boulder be a great problem to have today? The bottom line is this: growth and affordable housing were the biggest issues of the day when BW launched a quarter of a century ago, and they’re still two of the area’s biggest problems. So, we decided to re-interview some of the people featured in our first cover story and get their take on why so little progress has been made on these important issues. 

“You can just change the prices and the date and it’s about right,” say Paul Danish, former Boulder City Councilman and Boulder County Commissioner who lives in Longmont. It’s a sentiment echoed recently by many of those originally interviewed 25 years ago.

Local politicians and developers alike, all of whom have lived in Boulder some 50 years or more, say not much has changed when it comes to affordability in Boulder.

It’s a quarter of a century later and the median listing price for a house in Boulder is now upwards of $850,000. Not only is Boulder as expensive as ever, the major arguments for or against development and growth remain more or less the same as well. It seems growth is still the topic that turns Boulder’s political wheel. And with time, the problem has only spread to the rest of Boulder County. 

Growth in Longmont, Louisville and Lafayette (not to mention the rest of the state) is also booming, and only 5 percent of all housing in the county is considered affordable, as defined by a household spending no more than 30 percent of income on rent or mortgage, according to the Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership.

“I was discouraged and a little chagrined that here we are 25 years later, not only has the situation not improved but some of us, Steve (Pomerance) and I in particular, are still saying the same things,” says former mayor (’90-’97) Leslie Durgin, who only recently retired “again” after working with the Boulder Chamber of Commerce on workforce housing.

It has, in fact, become a tragedy of the commons, according to neighborhood advocate Steve Pomerance, the same argument he used in 1993 when he was a City Council member.

Steve Pomerance

“My impression of it is that the problems were a little closer to being solvable, or a little further away from being completely unsolvable. So they weren’t as on the edge as they are now,” Pomerance says. “In other words, it wasn’t as obvious then how bad traffic was going to get. It wasn’t as obvious then [how] dramatic increases in home prices were going to be. We were looking in the future then, saying, ‘We can see this coming.’ Now it’s here. And everything anybody wants to do is going to have an impact on somebody.”

As Pomerance sees it, maybe one thing has changed since 1993: Boulder, like much of the society around it, has become increasingly polarized over these issues. Pro-growth factions are pitted against neighborhood advocate groups, each side vying for power, filling public hearings over these issues and fighting for City Council seats. While Boulder may seem united in its progressive and liberal ideals to the rest of the world, arguments over how to, if at all, develop Boulder as the population grows continue.

“We’re not immune from the polarization,” Durgin says. “Sartre defined community as two people being stared at by a third, or I would say staring at a third. So we stare at Donald Trump, but our community in some ways is pretty thin.”

“Politics really come out when you try and build something,” long-time developer Rich McCabe says. “Everybody gets involved, everybody has an opinion. Maybe that’s good, but it makes it slow. And it makes it expensive.”

While some, if not most, Boulder developers have centered their careers on building high-end luxury homes and properties, McCabe has focused on low-income and affordable housing. “From a selfish point of view it’s because I never have to worry about the market,” he says, “because if you’re building on the low end there’s a long line.”

But it was a model that became increasingly difficult for McCabe locally. When BW interviewed him in 1993, McCabe was trying to get the Dakota Ridge neighborhood approved, a process that took him a decade in the end. The process was so laborious and ever-changing that he’s never worked in Boulder again.

McCabe says, “it was the planning process fiasco in Boulder” that eventually made him start working elsewhere. Although he still lives, and offices in Boulder, he refuses to develop any property in the City. 

“They essentially eliminated my profession from town and what I’m trying to do and what I love to do,” he says. “The scale of job classification from top to bottom would find used cars salesmen ahead of developers.”

Rich McCabe

He did a few projects in Denver, and now spends most of his time on PrairieStar, a large mixed-use development in Berthoud he’s been working on for the last 18 years or so. “There were some processes there but, man, everybody is cooperative and happy and they help along, they don’t hinder. It’s a very different world. And it still takes some time, but not at the same expense.”

Danish, for one, sees himself in both camps, so to speak. On one hand, he agrees with McCabe: The level of regulations the City has imposed on developers has driven prices up astronomically. On the other hand, he thinks a city has an optimal population of 50-100,000 residents, which Boulder has long-since surpassed. 

“The old rule is when you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging. And Boulder is continuing to dig,” Danish says. “It’s the old Looney Tunes expression, ‘That’s all folks.’”

Back then, Danish envisioned a city built to “human scale” where green space was interspersed with three- and four-story buildings of mixed-use developments that didn’t look like “tenements,” as many of the newer apartment buildings and townhouses do, especially the ones built in the name of affordable housing. It’s what’s behind his infamous 1976 Danish Plan, which restricted the annual housing supply growth to an annual rate of 2 percent, although the current ordinance has undergone some transformations since then.

“But it can’t be forced fed, it has to come up from the bottom,” Danish says, which, in his estimation, didn’t happen. “Boulder has paid lip service to it, but they haven’t implemented it properly, and I think it’s affecting the quality of life adversely.”

Not only that, Pomerance, Danish and Durgin all agree, now the lack of affordability is more widespread, as housing prices continue to rise in Longmont, Lafayette and Louisville, not to mention significant development growth both south, into Superior and Broomfield, and east into Erie. Whereas families who couldn’t afford housing in Boulder 25 years ago moved to East County, today there isn’t much of anywhere else to go.

“If you had told us then that Longmont will be a desirable and increasingly unaffordable community, I don’t think we would have believed you,” says former mayor Durgin. “I wish we had known how complicated it would be.”

Although she’s optimistic the county now has a region-wide collaborative effort to address housing affordability, it really only came together in the last few years. And she’s hopeful the relatively new Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership will be able to tackle the problem in informed and innovative ways.

“Simply having money isn’t going to solve the problem. You can’t solve it without money, but money in and of itself, it’s not going to solve it,” Durgin says. “I think back to the CHAP and I think we thought it was going to solve it.”

The 1993 article spoke extensively of the City’s Community Housing Assistance Program (CHAP), which was novel at the time: citizens taxing themselves to subsidize housing affordability through both development and homeownership assistance. Today, in addition to CHAP, the City has a variety of other programs to fund affordable housing, including money from the federal government, and yet affordability is still an issue.

Leslie Durgin

“I do not believe, as I did 25 years ago, we’re going to have a magic bullet to solve the problem,” Durgin says. “If we are really going to solve the housing problem, we have to look at a whole bunch of different avenues and create some political will and also flexibility and the willingness to experiment.”

While Boulder has chipped away at the problem somewhat, increasing its affordable housing from 3 to 7 percent since 2000, solutions have proved more or less elusive.

So, will Boulder still be having this same conversation 25 years from now?

“Before reading this [1993] article, I would have said no,” Durgin says, admitting she’s now not so sure. “I hope not, but I don’t have much confidence.”

The idea is sobering for Durgin, who says she, like the City Council of 1993, is generally optimistic, with a “can-do” attitude. 

In both Danish’s and Pomerance’s estimation, the conversation is only going to intensify and continue to broaden outside of Boulder’s boundaries, to the rest of the Front Range.

“[We’ll have a] much more radical discussion then, which is: Do you want to continue to develop the strip cities from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Trinidad, Colorado? That’s where we’re headed,” Danish says. “And we may have to, with planetary growth continuing.”

He brings up a good point, one not mentioned in 1993. Impending climate change, and the necessity to both combat and adapt to it as the population continues to grow, will inevitably drive the conversation in the future. Although sustainability has always been the backbone of Boulder’s development, it now must be the focus of every single conversation moving forward, including housing affordability.

And with that, it may be time to pass the baton and make room for younger generations to decide what they want.

Paul Danish

“I’m not at all sure that the present generation wants to live like I did,” Danish says. “It’s a much more urban generation, a great deal of its social life is electronic. … I don’t know how millennials and Generation Z want to live. And the most important thing I would say to them is get yourself involved because you’re designing the city you’re going to live in the next 50 years.”

It’s not only previous generations who are aware of the affordability issues in Boulder, however. In the latest community survey, only 8 percent of Boulderites rated affordable quality housing as excellent or good, and only 19 percent said the same for housing options. The cost of living in the city has an abysmal approval rating of only 9 percent, well below the national average. Contrast that with a 90 percent or more rating on Boulder’s economy, education, transportation and natural environment and it’s clear that affordability is still a major issue in Boulder.

“It’s really essential to get some different voices into this discussion and debate,” Durgin says. “To bring in not just younger voices, but people with different experiences, expectations, maybe [even] from other communities. Having Steve Pomerance and Leslie Durgin yammering on about it 25 years later is not solving the problem.”

As the next generation engages with the issues of affordability in the City of Boulder, Boulder County and throughout the state, perhaps affordability can be addressed in a meaningful and effective way. Or maybe the current, as well as past, situation is just the price tag that comes with living in Boulder.

“The city’s long-time policy of restricted growth has protected the local environment and high quality of life. Along with the area’s natural beauty and strong economy, that has made Boulder one of the most sought-after urban living environments in the country. More and more people are moving here to find the good life,” BW’s inaugural cover story said. And it may still be a good life here in Boulder County, but at what cost?