Adam Swetlik: Housing crisis is bigger than Boulder; solutions should be, too

Adam Swetlik 144.JPG
Adam Swetlik, who used to work as a bouncer for the Walrus, is running for city council (again). With no endorsements or experience, he received the second-fewest votes in the 2017 race.

Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 (Updated Oct. 13, 2019)

When Adam Swetlik ran for city council the first time, he had no endorsements and no political experience. He pulled in 1,940 votes, the second fewest of all 14 candidates on the 2017 ballot. 

Things have changed for Swetlik. He joined PLAN-Boulder County and served on its board. He is the chair of the city’s Housing Advisory Board. This election, he is one of five preferred candidates for two slow-growth groups.

What hasn’t changed is Swetlik’s reason for running: Boulder’s housing affordability crisis. 

“Most of the people I worked with in town didn’t live here, and if they did, they had four roommates and at least two jobs,” he said. “We’re all working our asses off just to be able to live in this town.”

Others have simply moved away in order to buy a house and start a family. “All these really smart, successful people Boulder is not an option for them.”

Boulder is far from alone: Cities big and small are experiencing rapid escalation of prices. But Boulder is among the least affordable: Boulder County has the sixth-highest median single-family home price, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Such a high-level problem requires high-level solutions, Swetlik believes. His suggestions for tackling the affordability crisis are government interventions like rent control and transfer taxes. But those measures are nearly all beyond the scope of Boulder’s authority; state laws preempt  municipalities from implementing them. His primary role as a city council member would be to advocate for changes to those laws. 

“This is a rare, rare opportunity to make this happen since we have Democrats in all levels of government right now at the state level,” he said. “There’s almost no advocacy for these issues.”

Boulder does pay a lobbyist to advocate at the state and federal level. The 2019 lobbying agenda did include a transfer tax, and city council has expressed support for overturning Colorado’s ban on rent control. But Swetlik said that when he attended a state legislature hearing on a (now dead) bill to do so this past winter, he was the sole representative of  Boulder’s political scene.

“Not a single staff member from Boulder, not a single city council person — no one was there to speak for that issue,” he said. He acknowledges that the hearing was held during a snowstorm, possibly complicating travel for some, but stands by his criticism. “It makes me think, how important is this stuff? You say you want all the tools in the box, but no one showed up. We need leaders that will.”

There are some things Swetlik thinks Boulder can be doing, such as raising taxes and fees to pay for affordable housing. He’s also a fan of the middle-income down payment assistance program awaiting voter approval.

What he doesn’t want to see in the affordability toolbox is density. He was one of two participants in this summer’s Raucous Caucus to say he doesn’t believe in compact urban development as a means of combating climate change — an issue that is dividing environmentalists

Increased density might help reduce emissions, Swetlik agrees, but only up to a point. And then there’s the fact that he and many others don’t want to live in a bigger town; 10,000 to 20,000 more residents might be reasonable, he said, but even adding those people would exacerbate Boulder’s affordability woes, he fears — at least under the current, broken housing system.

“I don’t disagree with a lot of densification principles,” he said. But  “If you actually were building stuff that I believed would help people who are low-income, you could build the shit out of high density.

“If we keep saying, ‘More and more, right now’ without things in place to actually capture that value and disperse it to the people who need it, it’s just going to make the problem even worse. You have to have rules in place to capture the benefit.”

Swetlik doesn’t have a particular plan for ensuring that Boulder will ever get to Part 2 of his vision: actually building housing. Even if 100% of new housing in Boulder were to be affordable — which Swetlik would like to see, even if he admits it’s unlikely and maybe impossible — there is still likely to be significant pushback. 

Palo Parkway and Attention Homes were both affordable housing projects, the latter for homeless youth. Both were hotly contested by neighborhood groups, though they won the approval of slow-growth majority councils.

In lieu of a plan, Swetlik has a promise.

“If I don’t do the second part, I’m not fulfilling my goal,” he said. “I have no illusions about how hard these problems are and what we can actually do. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying.”

Who he says he represents: Working people, neighborhoods

Endorsed by: PLAN Boulder County, Together4Boulder, Indian Peaks Sierra Club, (Not an endorsement, per se, but Swetlik received 100% on the Planned Parenthood questionnaire)

Campaign filings: 14 days before election

Priorities: Housing, community engagement

Relevant op-eds: “Affordable change for Boulder’s ADU future

Why you might want to vote for him: Swetlik shows up. Aside from his Housing Advisory Board duties, he has attended nearly every city council meeting for several months. Swetlik is also the only PLAN-endorsed candidate* who attended the March for Police Oversight and the city council listening session on racism, and speaks on issues of race and homelessness with comfort and knowledge. *(Editor’s note: This does not include Corina Julca, who declined to interview.)

He also handles criticism and crisis well. He attributes his ability to keep cool in stressful situations to the four years he spent as a bouncer at Walrus and being a child of divorce.

“I learned a lot about trying to find compromise and make things work in a bad situation,” he said. “It’s not something I love to do, but it’s something I can do. I’ve fallen into these things — bouncing, politics — because I can utilize those skills.

Why you might not want to vote for him: A handful of times throughout the interview, Swetlik made a claim and then, when asked for supporting evidence, admitted it was “a feeling” or was based on what turned out to be incorrect information. Most troubling was his take on CU South, in which he repeated false (but persistent) claims popular among opponents of development. However, Swetlik responds well when presented with information that is counter to his statements, either admitting the need to do more research or the possibility that his sources of information are problematic or just plain wrong. 

He was less willing to be swayed by another criticism. Swetlik paints all arguments for density as being driven by business and development interests. While there is still debate to be had about the pros and cons of compact urban development in Boulder, the voices in the conversation are vast and varied: The New York Times, the Atlantic, nonprofit and environmental groups have all argued for the need to address restrictive zoning and to build more housing, more compactly. To write them all off as somehow profit-driven is lazy and uncritical, two traits that don’t otherwise apply to Swetlik. Rather than relenting when questioned, Swetlik doubled down on his claims that even the Sierra Club is succumbing to the pressures of monied interest groups.

Swetlik on the issues

Housing:  Swetlik’s approach to housing would be to do as much capital-A Affordable (subsidized by government cash) as possible. He personally advocated for Boulder upping its affordable housing goal to 20% rather than 15%, though he spoke to council on behalf of PLAN to support the lower threshold.

He’s for every type of tax on the table, even regressive measures like sales tax: “I’m more than willing to pay more in sales tax if that’s going to go toward housing people,” he said.

The effort to cap the allowable size of homes in Boulder has been postponed, but Swetlik would have voted for it, if he was on the council at the time. “You don’t need that much space,” he said. “I’m one of the biggest people in this town and I live in 650 square feet very comfortably. If you’re trying to keep people from building things that are going to price their neighbors out, why the hell would you not put a limit?”

He also believes that the University of Colorado should build more student housing and require sophomores to live on campus, in addition to freshmen. Like with his pursuit of rent control and transfer taxes, it’s not something he would have the power to do as a city council member. Swetlik acknowledges this and stresses the need for advocacy at the state level.

“I might not have all the local solutions (but) at least I have the intent to make things better,” he said. “I may be yelling from the same bullhorn as everyone else saying the system is broken, but at least I’m one of those people yelling.”

Something else Swetlik suggested that is definitely out of reach: Reserving some of the city’s affordable housing for people of color, an almost certain violation of fair-housing rules meant to prohibit discrimination based on race.

Homelessness:  Swetlik is in favor of year-round sheltering and critical of the city’s camping ban, which he sees as “sweeping the problem under the rug.” During the Chamber forum, he called for increased investment in services — bathrooms, lockers, showers — and to fund the countywide housing-first approach. 

“No one should ever die from exposure outside,” he said during this interview. “That is the barest of minimums.”

He also critiqued measures the city has taken to discourage unhoused residents from sleeping in public, such as landscape changes, as a waste of money.

“I hate to see stupid things like paying $50,000 to put boulders around things so people can’t sit on them. That type of ideology needs to go away forever. Any dollar you would spend on stuff like that should just go toward the benefit of that person, not trying to remove that person.”

CU South / Flood mitigation: Swetlik’s views of the process are, as he puts it, “a bit back and forth.” He questioned if the flood mitigation plan designed by consultants would even work, a frequent bogeyman argument by groups opposed to CU’s development of that land. (He backed off when asked directly if he was questioning the conclusions of paid experts and city staff.) 

But he is also critical of some of those same people who argue that CU shouldn’t build anything there and feel the land should be preserved as open space. 

“To me, it is CU’s land,” he said. “I don’t know what happened 30 years ago when they bought it, but you have to face the realization of today. And today, you have a chance of people dying.”

He wasn’t aware that the university has agreed to limit the number of housing units there to 1,100 and keep buildings below the city’s 55-foot height limit, but he didn’t agree with the restrictions. The land is a perfect place for student housing, he said, and lots of it: “If they want to build them tall, you’re not blocking any views. It’s on the end of town.”

Muni: Swetlik is “firmly” pro-muni. At a PLAN forum, he said the effort was “worth every penny,” according to a Camera article — especially if it pushes Xcel toward faster adoption of carbon-free energy, as he believes it does 

Hill hotel: Swetlik is “generally not in favor” of a hotel in that spot. “I definitely understand that the Hill needs some revitalization of some sort, but I think there’s a lot better way to go about doing that.” Other projects would be more “interesting” and beneficial, he said, though none have been proposed or are on the table at this point.

Lethal control of prairie dogs: Swetlik supports council’s vote to explore this option. “Your first go-to shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s just murder everything if something gets out of whack.’  But once something gets to a point where it’s uncontrollable by any other means, that’s when you have to at least look into if lethal control is going to be helpful to the ecosystem.”

Budget: Like many candidates, Swetlik wasn’t very familiar with the budget, saying he needed to “inform myself much better.” The few policies he mentioned were charging more for parking and raising hotel taxes. He is in favor of the sales tax extension to fund open space. In terms of cuts or shifting spending priorities, Swetlik would like to either cut Boulder’s economic vitality spending — $150,000 in the proposed 2020 budget to pay for unspecified “business incentives programs” that include things like small business microloans, retention rebates and employee parks and recreation discounts  — or perhaps shift it to focus on efforts to preserve and promote small business. 

Neighborhood input on development: Swetlik was one of the candidates at the Raucous Caucus to argue that neighbors should get more say over projects than residents citywide. He is critical of the city’s engagement process, praising Think Boulder’s efforts despite the group’s questionable practices.

“A lot of that is people feeling like things are being done to them. I don’t think in past years the city has had really good communication with neighborhoods.” 

Occupancy limits: Swetlik is not in favor of of Boulder’s rules barring three or four unrelated persons from living together. “It’s an unenforceable rule.”

Police oversight: Swetlik called the creation of the task force “a really, really good step in the right direction,” saying “it probably should have happened a long time ago.”

Though he said he has never personally witnessed police mistreating people of color, he admits it could be happening and recounted numerous instances of racism shared by his friends and co-workers downtown. He referred to the confrontation of Zayd Atkinson as “racially motivated,” calling it a “terrible” incident. 

He also believes that police should make interactions with unhoused residents “their lowest priority.” 

“People just living their lives, trying to exist in a public space, those people shouldn’t be harassed. Right now I don’t think that’s the case in what’s happening.”

Attended March for Police Oversight: Yes

Attended city council listening session on racism: Yes

Council’s use of moratoria: Though Swetlik does not favor the use of moratoria generally — “There is a lack of a long-term, agreed-upon vision that creates these” situations, he said — he supports both the moratoria put in place by this council. 

Opportunity Zone moratorium: “I definitely would have voted for” this, Swetlik said. He spoke in support of the moratorium at city council ahead of the 6-3 vote to implement it. “That is a huge tax giveaway to companies; huge. That area is one that still has some affordability naturally because it has older buildings. What would be built there would not be affordable. It made sense to slow things down, try to capture as much value as possible.”

Height limit moratorium: Swetlik is also in favor of lowering the charter-mandated height limit of 55 feet. “In certain parts of the town, it makes sense. A big part of what the city wants to maintain is views out to the west. If you’re not affecting that, 55 foot makes sense. If you are, (lower) is probably better.”

Author’s note: This article has been updated to include endorsements.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I like so much of his enthusiasm and effort, but his ignorance of the Muni faults and the arrogance of thinking that Boulder is influencing Xcel rather than regulations, economics and good ideas (which Boulder has none) is disqualifying. I won’t vote for him unless he wakes up to the Muni folly.

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