Boulderites happy overall with city, but huge gaps based on income, ethnicity, home ownership

Photo by Shay Castle, Boulder Beat

Boulderites gave their city typically high marks in the most recent community survey, an every-two-years measurement of quality of life, governance and services. In keeping with past years’ findings, 93% of respondents rated Boulder as a good or excellent place to live.

Our best features, according to residents, continue to be access to nature and recreation offerings and the preservation of open space, as well as the ease of biking, walking or taking the bus instead of driving.

Where Boulder falls short is housing. As the surveyors, National Research Center, put it, “More Boulder residents were experiencing housing cost stress than their national counterparts.”

Only 8% of survey-takers rated the city’s availability of quality, affordable housing as excellent or good; 19% said housing options overall were satisfactory. And just 9% rated Boulder’s cost of living positively.

A deeper look at who responded reveals huge gaps in how different people experience living here. Latinx residents see fewer opportunities to connect with the larger community or access many of the services that the city as a whole rated highly.

For instance, whereas 57% of respondents said affordable mental health services were readily available, only 33% of Latinx surveyed agreed. There was also a major discrepancy in how respondents feel engaged socially: 85% overall said Boulder provided plenty of opportunities, whereas 65% of Latinx residents feel that way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the less money respondents had, the harder they find it is to live here. Boulder’s favorability drops by 20 percentage points when looking only at responses from those of lower incomes. They saw the city as a more difficult place to raise children or get around than people with more means, and were less confident in Boulder’s government and much less likely to attend city events.

Renters are less engaged with the city than homeowners, too. Nearly one-third of homeowners had attended a public meeting of some sort; just 13% of renters had.

Consistent across the board were the low ratings given to elected officials. Ten percent of respondents felt that city council considers their input before making decisions. The number of residents who say council’s actions reflect their values is low: 34 percent.

Despite the dismal view of city council, respondents were happier overall with the government than in 2016. Half of respondents said the overall direction of local governance was excellent or good, compared to 46% in 2016. 

Other measures of good governance saw similar gains the past two years:

  • Welcoming citizen involvement: 59% rated it excellent or good (55% in 2016)
  • Confidence in city gov’t: 54% (50% in 2016)
  • Leaders acting in the best interest of Boulder: 56% (50% in 2016)
  • Leaders being honest: 60% (56% in 2016)

Staff intends to use the responses in its equity work, Engagement Manager Sarah Huntley said at a Tuesday study session. Councilwoman Mirabai Nagle also requested that a further look be taken at some of the disparities, such as Hispanics’ low ratings of police and EMS, to see if there are discrepancies in wait times based on ethnicity. Councilman Aaron Brockett asked for similar data to compare against residents’ feelings that driving and parking has gotten more difficult over time.

“Reality is important,” added councilman Sam Weaver, “but perception is important, too.”

Where we’re ahead

Boulder cracked the top 10 nationally in a number of categories, mostly revolving around education, the outdoors and alternative transportation. (Author’s note: Sample sizes ranged from category to category; comparison data is pulled from NRC’s database of over 500 communities that conduct citizen surveys similar to this one.)

We’re No. 1 in availability of paths and walking trails

No. 2 in opportunities for health and wellness, fitness, recreation and education; preservation of natural lands; and number of residents who recently visited a park

No. 3 in number of residents who exercise and walk or bike instead of driving

No. 4 for bus and transit services; ease of bicycle transport; number of residents who carpool; and overall natural environment

No. 5 for adult education opportunities

No. 6 for a vibrant downtown; recreation facilities; number of residents in good health and who use public transit; and volunteer opportunities

No. 7 in number of residents who campaigned or advocated for an issue, cause or candidate

No. 8 as a place to visit

No. 9 in offering recreation programs or classes

Where we’re falling behind

Boulder ranks dead last for cost of living, variety of housing options and availability of quality affordable housing among cities with similar population (50,000 to 150,000). We’re also in last place among Front Range communities on those metrics. Nationally, Boulder ranks 270 of 276 for affordable housing, 242 of 250 for housing options overall and 174 of 180 for cost of living.

While our alternative transportation options are to be envied, residents consistently rank getting around by car as more difficult than in other towns. In the Front Range, we’re 22 of 24 for ease of car travel, 7 of 8 for ease of public parking, and 19 of 21 for traffic flow on major roads. 

One strange way Boulder is consistently behind the pack? In the number of residents who stock supplies in an emergency (also known as prepping).

Who participated?

1,260 responses were received (less than 1.2% of Boulder’s total population)

25 to 34 year-olds were the most responsive: 34% of total respondents were in that age group

By income, those earning $50K-$100K were the highest respondents (30%) followed by those who make $150,000 per year or more (25% of total responses)

80% of respondents pay more than $1,000 per month for housing: 21% pay $1-1.5K, 33% pay $1,500-$2,499, and 26% pay $2,500 or more each month

Find links to full survey results from 2018 and 2016 here.

Author’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from city council.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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