Boulder ups affordable housing goal to 15%, but council split on how to get there

Photo by Brandon Griggs on Unsplash

April 6, 2019

Boulder will aim for 15% affordable housing by 2035, with eyes on a higher target in the future, after city council debated the matter Tuesday. But when it came to a plan for how to raise the roughly $225 million extra the city will need to build or preserve homes, elected officials were less committed. A proposed property tax, which would be put forward by the county, drew direct opposition from some members and tepid support, at best, from others.

To make 15% of Boulder County’s housing stock affordable by 2035, the city will need to build or preserve 4,008 dwellings by 2035. To date, there are 3,484 affordable units in Boulder, created over 19 years when Boulder first established its goal of 10% affordable homes citywide. There are also 110 deed-restricted middle-income homes, of the 1,000 Boulder hopes to have by 2030.

Adding or preserving that many homes will cost an estimated $15 million extra each year, according to city staff.

The Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership is recommending increasing property taxes to raise roughly $20 million annually countywide. Voters would have to approve the hike via a ballot measure, which Boulder County may push in November’s election. It would add around $100 annually to the property tax for a $500,000 condo; $180 per year for a single-family home worth $900,000.

Much of council thought November might be too soon for such a measure. In preliminary polling, a narrow majority (55%) of 600 survey respondents said they would support a property tax.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy sell in Boulder,” said councilman Sam Weaver, who was opposed to a 2019 ballot item. “If it goes down, we’re done. For a long time.”

Others, including Mayor Suzanne Jones, councilwoman Mary Young and councilman Aaron Brockett, were open to the idea of fall vote. Councilwoman Cindy Carlisle, meanwhile, said she wouldn’t support a property tax no matter when it was brought forward.

“It wouldn’t be equitably distributed across the tax base,” Carlisle said. “I see it as inequitable for the people and businesses who have been living and working here who are trying to maintain as things are going up astronomically.”

Property taxes increased 37.5% in the most recent assessment. Approximately 24% of homeowners in Boulder pay more than 30% of their income toward their mortgage, according to census data. However, 61% of renters do.

Political group PLAN Boulder, while it did not explicitly oppose the property tax, believes council should instead focus on acquiring homes and apartment buildings to preserve as affordable housing, as well as a recently proposed down payment assistance program. The city should also step up enforcement of short-term rentals and “work with” CU to “cap enrollment and house substantially more students on campus,” member Adam Swetlik said, reading from a prepared statement.

PLAN endorsed the 15% goal. Swetlik, who also sits on the Housing Advisory Board, noted that, as a member of that group, he personally supported a higher target of 20%.

Of the handful of people who spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing, only one — Evan Freirich — urged council to adopt a 20% goal and to pursue higher property taxes to fund it.

“As a property owner, I have been personally enriched enormously” by rising property values, Freirich said. “I can’t say that (of) those wage earners who spend money in stores” and would therefore be burdened by higher sales tax, another proposal put forward.

Boulder needs to set an example to the rest of the county, he said. A goal of 12% — as has been suggested by the regional partnership — “isn’t enough. We need to step it up.”

Each municipality in Boulder County will, in turn, debate the 12% goal and the proposed property tax. Longmont took a look on Tuesday night, but city council and two members of the public were loath to support either.

Speaking before Boulder’s council on Tuesday, Chamber President John Tayer said higher property taxes would further burden businesses already struggling under rising costs. Because of Colorado’s Gallagher Amendment, commercial property owners pay a greater share of property taxes than do residential owners.

Tayer instead asked that elected officials pursue policies that would encourage the development of “more moderate-size homes” along transit corridors, something HAB suggested in its report to council.

“We ask you to work first on these no-cost solutions,” Tayer said.

Aside from a brief mention from Brockett that the discussion should include “policies as well as taxes,” council did not debate at all any regulatory changes as a means of increasing affordable housing.

Councilwoman Lisa Morzel proposed a fee on demolitions, “most” of which, she said, “are completely ridiculous.” The idea of a tax on second or luxury homes was floated as well, and drew support across members, except for Carlisle, who questioned the legality.

City Attorney Tom Carr said that, while there are some restrictions in state law, a workaround could possible be found. Summit County, he noted, has adopted a second-home tax.

Even if the property tax were to pass in Boulder County, the expected $20 million in annual revenue would not to go Boulder alone. The regional partnership is proposing that 75% of monies collected be distributed to cities based on population; the remaining quarter would fund three countywide programs: down payment assistance, homebuyer counseling and home rehabilitation.

Boulder’s council members felt that fewer dollars should be directed to the programs and more to cities. They also thought that the distribution should be based on the value of property, not population, which would increase Boulder’s share substantially from the roughly $3.5-$4 million it would get under the current proposal.

While Mayor Jones saw the value of a regional approach, others did not. It makes more sense to build homes in Longmont than Boulder, Jones said, because the cost is much less.

“We’re going to spend a lot more money to solve it here,” she said.

Councilman Weaver rejoined that it doesn’t make sense to build housing in a place that doesn’t reduce in-commuting to Boulder. “Regional transit!” Jones replied. But those in opposition stood firm.

Boulder has to get “a complete fair share” of the funds, Morzel said. “Or else I’d rather do it on my own. Just do a city of Boulder tax.”

Wherever the cash ends up coming from, housing staff, in a presentation to council, said money alone won’t solve Boulder’s housing crisis. Financial resources were but one of four strategies needed to meet the city’s goals, including a consideration of regulatory policies to “ensure (that) regulations and processes facilitate and not impeded (sic) housing creation.”

“To reach anything beyond the 10% goal,” said Kristin Hyser, deputy director of housing and human services, “it cannot be business as usual.”

To view a Twitter thread of Tuesday night’s discussion, visit

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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Governance Housing

0 Comments Leave a comment

  1. “Aside from a brief mention from Brockett that the discussion should include “policies as well as taxes,” council did not debate at all any regulatory changes as a means of increasing affordable housing.”

    Just banging our heads against a wall, endlessly. The ONLY affordable housing “solution” this council is interested in are either increasing the Boulder affordable housing bureaucracy (i.e. Boulder city govn’t controlled affordable housing) via buying/owning more of Boulder itself. This can only happen on the backs of current homeowners in town via property taxes, apparently, at a moment when our retired/fixed income population is in ascendance. Perfect. So, as always, our council sees increasing the cost of homeownership as the key to affordable homeownership. This stuff writes itself…

    Demo restrictions, luxury taxes, etc etc – the hang-up here is ripe for a psychoanalysis here I cannot muster. These things have little to nothing to do with affordable housing in Boulder. Folks who can afford a $1M scrape don’t blink at your paperwork and tax hurdles, and they definitely end up hurting the middle your professing to ‘save’ now. Why can’t you see this? Does anyone on council understand what an incentive looks like? Or are we only ever going to beat people up with regs and fees? Council is caught in a loop of terrible ideas and restrictive mindsets. Not up to the task of this affordability issue by a long shot – not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of candor. They are seeking to preserve and change simultaneously, with the former the heavier weighted goal.

    It’s more and more clear – the third rails of Boulder affordability politics – policy strategies our “leaders” refuse to even discuss: Open up single family zones for smaller lots, subdividing for smaller single family units. Open them up for bi- and tri-plexes. Open up for density along transit corridors in both units and height, density is REQUIRED to make the longed for and fabled 15-minute neighborhoods in our beloved Comp Plan a successful reality (do we want these 15min businesses to succeed?). Spread the high cost of land amongst more units to make them more affordable. Build a transit system that can actually replace car dependence (trolleys, free e-bikes to residents, regional rail).

  2. What would be wrong with a graduated property tax, one that is exceedingly high at the high end?, ultimately a graduated income tax is better of course, which would be opposed more than a property tax by John Tayer, because of it’s effect on business (thus the reference to the impact of prop. tax 45% on commercial 55% from the Gallegher Amendment in his comment at council).

    The real problem here is the spiking value of land resulting from luxury structural improvements. These forces are great for subterranean parking and multilevel structure, and proportionally more for micro-apartments. The embedded energy per capita is high. The developers and property managers are laughing all the way to the bank. Then after the tax benefits from depreciation have run out, they do it all over again. Cases in point Eastpointe, demolition of hospital at Alpine Balsam. Plus developers get the steroid effect of the Opportunity Zone capital gains tax relief.

    In the case of Fruehauf’s, I hear now the units of affordable required by 311 includes some “not affordable” and the number is 117, up from 95. What’s more it’s in the OZ. Does that mean Don Altman gets capital gains relief? and what about the moratorium on new build, oh yeah, it’s affordable, so it stays within the moratorium. There was a hotel proposed just west of the police station on 33rd in the OZ. DOA, I understand, but how could anyone even apply? Violates moratorium. Also I hear there is new office space proposed, a violation. Jane Brautigam needs to go, most certainly for her blight on Boulder for passing the OZ without council even knowing. Then all we got was a moratorium not reversal. There is plenty of new build “affordable housing” and parking exclusions at Fruehauf’s. Of course there are none up at 311 Mapleton at the uber high end project. But if you live at Fruehauf’s you have to share a couple cars or take the bus, and Don Altman, the developer and Michael Bosma, get yet another subsidy from the city (5 already). This is driving a lot more folks into homelessness and the intersection with black oppression. The incident with Zyad was not generated from a call for a disturbance, it was just a patrol for the area near Naropa where homeless had been known to frequent. There will be plenty more where that came from. This police investigation, task force and oversite committee is not cheap. The future ones from the police overloaded with work sorting out the bad guys from the good will distract $’s inefficiently.

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