Affordable housing vs. mass transit


I think it was in 1995 that I first suggested a fix to Boulder’s affordable housing problem in the pages of Boulder Weekly. As I recall, the circumstances were a lot like today; rents and real estate prices were outrageously high for the region and the Boulder bureaucracy was struggling with the question of how to maintain the city’s economic diversity while still prohibiting the town’s outward growth, upward growth, ugly growth and density growth.

Two decades ago I argued that growth/height restrictions and real affordable housing were mutually exclusive. It was true then and it’s still true. Don’t get me wrong. Boulder needs and has worked hard to create low-income housing for those among us who need it most; people with disabilities or other circumstances that make it difficult to secure an income adequate to live in Boulder.

That’s not the misguided component of Boulder’s infatuation with affordable housing. It’s in the contrived attempt to treat middle class working families like some kind of endangered species where the city goes a bit daft.

My suggested fix 20 years ago didn’t go over real well with a lot of people. I recommended that if the city were serious about economic diversity and affordable housing it should put several thousand mobile homes on open space and make them rent con trolled forever. I think the only letter of support I got came from Bob Greenlee, and I’m pretty sure that neither of us really thought turning open space into trailer parks was the right answer to the problem.

But looking back, my suggestion was no more absurd a solution to affordable housing than much of what Boulder attempts these days, namely spending tons of time and money so a handful of gainfully employed folks can tell their friends they live inside Boulder’s city limits. Such expenditures of time and money are not a realistic vision for creating diversity. I say “creating” as opposed to “maintaining” because if you haven’t noticed, most of Boulder’s economic diversity vaporized a long time ago in exchange for the various growth limits that helped shape Boulder into one of the most physically beautiful communities in the country.

I suspect that the last 20 years of well-intentioned but mostly futile efforts to create affordable housing in Boulder are best explained as a perpetual exercise designed to ease the guilt felt by the honestly good and kind and progressive people who somewhat inadvertently helped to destroy actual affordable housing in the name of open space, beauty and the environment.

Well folks, it’s time to stop beating yourselves up and move on to other more pressing issues. Try the AA approach. Just stand up and admit that the city of Boulder is never going to be an affordable place to live for the vast majority of people who want to locate here; Google employees, yes; service industry workers with an aversion to multiple roommates, no.

Boulder is what it is; a very nice, well-heeled, mostly economically and racially homogenous community. Boulder County’s affordable housing and a good deal of its diversity are now located six to 12 miles east. Longmont, Lafayette and Louisville are amazing communities these days, full of microbreweries, gluten-free bakeries, lofts, galleries and yes, diversity and far more actually affordable housing.

So the real issue at this point in our history isn’t figuring out how to cram another 50 or 100 or 200 subsidized units of middle-class housing into Boulder. Such an effort, no matter how well-intentioned, is simply an unjustifiable waste of resources. The real issue at hand is to figure out how to create time- and cost-effective mass transit that can get people back and forth between their jobs in Boulder and their real affordable housing in East County.

Thirty five thousand people a day commute from East County to Boulder to work. If they could catch a bus or train every five minutes into their jobs during peak commuter hours, many people would take advantage of that and stop driving. This commuter issue is a very real problem that effort and dollars could actually impact in a positive way, and it would go a long way towards taking care of the affordable housing issue at the same time, provided that Boulder’s affordable housing problem is really about affordable housing and not about the fear of its progressive image being tarnished because blue-collar workers can’t afford to buy homes here.

Wanting to make housing within its city limits affordable to the working class is the kind of progressive ideal that makes Boulder a fantastic community. Not understanding that its own growth limits make that largely impossible is less admirable as it may prove a barrier to solving the more fixable problem of getting people to and from their real, unsubsidized affordable homes in East County.

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