Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers unveiled their sweeping land-use legislation package Wednesday, a first-in-decades reform that would reshape Colorado’s patchwork zoning system in an attempt to address the state’s housing shortages.
The legislation — primarily coming from one, 106-page bill — will seek to encourage denser building in key urban areas; to better study and plan to address housing needs; and cut “red tape” and clear the way for property owners to build more units on their land. The bill would direct the state Department of Local Affairs to draft “model” housing codes for cities, though local governments would have the ability to accept minimum standards into their current regulations. If they don’t, the department’s model code would be placed upon them.
The bills, set to be introduced Wednesday, represent Polis’s primary approach to solving the state’s housing crisis. The goal, the governor and other supporters say, is to create a statewide minimum zoning code that treats Colorado cities’ housing struggles as part of a common fight, rather than as a series of isolated battles. There’s an urgent need for more housing: The state’s supply is short by tens of thousands of units, and a Common Sense Institute analysis from July estimates that between 46,600 and 72,600 new permits are needed each year through 2025 to fill in the current deficit and account for population growth.
But assuming the bill is passed as written, its impacts will not be immediate. Polis told the Denver Post that he expected at least one to two years to pass before it leads to more units sprouting up. Building more carriage houses won’t solve Colorado’s housing crisis, though, and experts say it will take years for the market to respond to the broader zoning changes Polis and legislators are proposing. The intent, Polis said, is to have reshaped housing in the state within the next five to 10 years so people can afford to live in their communities and near their jobs.
To do that, the bill would allow property owners to build accessory-dwelling units — like carriage houses — on their property or to develop “middle housing” — like duplexes and triplexes — even if the land is zoned for single-family use. It would also encourage more dense building in areas near bus routes in cities, meaning more apartments in key urban centers and corridors.
The primary bill is being sponsored by Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and the Senate’s majority leader, as well as by House Democratic Reps. Iman Jodeh and Steven Woodrow. A second bill, which would prohibit cities from enacting growth caps that restrict development, is being introduced by Democratic Rep. William Lindstedt.
“How do we grow?”
The reforms are being pitched not only as a way to kickstart Colorado’s housing development but as a way to improve the state’s air quality (by encouraging the use of public transit) and maximize the use of resources like water (by building more densely).
“The thing is we haven’t kept pace with supply and we know this,” Woodrow said. “So we’re going to keep growing — there’s no dispute we’re going to keep growing. The question is, how do we grow?”
The measure would remove occupancy requirements — like that only three non-related people can live in the same unit — except as required by fire and building codes. Certain parking mandates would be nixed, too, the governor’s office said, giving developers the option of whether to build spaces or not. That dove-tails with density goals: If you build near public transit or in walkable areas, you need fewer cars. That means fewer parking spots (and, hopefully, less pollution); critics of parking requirements have said the policies slow down development — particularly for affordable housing — while driving costs and eating up space.
The bill will also require regional and statewide housing studies — identifying what types of housing the state and its cities are missing — every five years. That information, the governor’s office said, will help drive state-level policy decisions going forward while providing better insight into actual need. It would also require local governments to commit to a certain amount of state-approved affordability and anti-displacement measures.
“That’s critical I think to understanding what kind of affordability measures need to be put in place and what kind of anti-displacement measures we need to think about,” said Cathy Alderman, the spokeswoman and chief policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “I think that’s where we start.”
The proposal represents a significant foray by the legislature and state-level policymakers into what’s long been the purview of city councils: zoning decisions. Local government groups — notably the Colorado Municipal League — have already declared their intent to fight what they see as encroachments on local control. Some housing advocates have also warned against an overly prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach, noting the different needs — and average income levels — of, say, the Front Range versus resort towns.
Polis’s office has taken pains to assuage concerns about local control and re-frame the issue as one of property rights: If you own the land, that argument goes, you should be able to build a carriage house or convert the property into a duplex. A lengthy list of quotes from supporters provided by Polis’s office includes county commissioners, city council members and mayors.
To address concerns about local control, the bill allows city officials to have some autonomy on the transit-oriented density plans: The governor’s office said cities that agree to certain base-level requirements can adopt a “flexible” approach that fits into their existing zoning code. If they don’t, they’ll be reverted to a standard, more rigid statewide policy. Local regulations around ADUs — like their appearance, for instance — would also still be allowed under the bill.
“Housing is an issue that we are all struggling with across the state,” Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said. “This bill identifies some strategies that all of us should be adopting to help move the needle in mitigating the crisis. I think there’s a lot of flexibility for local governments to maintain (control) and do what we do best, which is know our communities.”
The contours of the land-use bill have taken shape over the course of several months and scores of meetings between key legislators, Polis’s policy team, local government groups and a coterie of housing and nonprofit groups. Its details have been kept quiet through the first half of the legislative session. Even as other pro-tenant legislation has wound through the Capitol, the zoning reform effort has loomed on the periphery, imminent but fuzzy, to the point that Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat who’s sponsored several pro-tenant housing bills, has referred to it as Schrodinger’s land-use bill.
The proposal comes amid a broader legislative focus on housing access and affordability within the Capitol. On their road to a dominant Election Day showing in November, Colorado Democrats were inundated with voter requests to address the housing crisis. As a result, House Democrats have backed bills to allow for rent control to be enacted in willing jurisdictions, to provide more eviction protections to tenants, to eliminate certain provisions in lease agreements and to make it easier to apply for housing.
Those measures, their supporters say, represent immediate, tenant-based solutions to evictions and climbing rental costs. The land-use reform bill, meanwhile, is a supply-side approach: It will build more housing, but on a timeline of years, not days or months.
Affordable housing advocates involved in the bill’s drafting have said they want affordability and anti-gentrification measures built in. Their fear is that, as land becomes more valuable for developers who now have a clearer path to building multi-unit buildings, they will price-out members of the existing community.
Polis said that anti-displacement strategies are “at the core of this bill.” He said the bill would lean on local governments to enact affordability measures that work for their community. In the housing studies, local governments will have to identify strategies to curtail gentrification and preserve affordability. He also said there will be “additional tools” to ensure that newly built carriage houses go into the state’s housing supply, rather than feeding into the existing short-term rental market.
Colorado is not the first state to take a statewide approach to zoning codes. California has enacted laws to effectively end single-family zoning while encouraging density — and eliminating parking requirements — in transit corridors. Utah lawmakers are considering making it easier for property owners to build ADUs and to encourage dense building. Maine has also eliminated single-family zoning, and lawmakers in Washington advanced a bill in early March that would do the same.
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