Guest opinion: The housing Boulder refused to build

3303 Broadway, vacant for more than a decade, has twice been proposed for redevelopment as housing. (Google street view)

By Eric Budd

In 2016, Boulder city council rejected a proposal to build 50 middle income housing units at Iris and Broadway in North Boulder. The housing developer made a prior attempt to build 94 units at the site, reducing the number of units after initial feedback from Boulder’s planning board

Following that devastating loss of housing opportunity here in Boulder, I wrote an op-ed (excerpt below) on how the rejection shows exactly the pattern of not building the housing we need.

Boulder prides itself on progressive values, striving to lead in sustainability and limiting climate change. But as city leaders grapple with unaffordable housing and pressures from growth, attempts to find balance in a changing character cause Boulder to fall short of its ideals on many fronts.

In housing specifically, the City Council speaks of a desire to create “15-minute neighborhoods” where residents can walk and bike to services, to improve bus and bike infrastructure, and build housing for the “missing middle” as a greater number of middle-income families can no longer afford to live in Boulder. But an example of one recently proposed housing development accomplishing many of those goals was unanimously rejected by Boulder’s Planning Board.

The housing development, called Iris and B, would have provided 50 middle-income housing units on the city’s most active transit corridor. The project would have fulfilled many of the stated goals: providing a neighborhood coffee shop or restaurant, a diverse mix of housing targeted at 80 to 120 percent of the median area income, connecting to a bike route, and having a six-minute bus ride downtown. The units would have ranged from small efficiency-style up through three-bedroom condominiums for families, using smaller-footprint designs that reduce the amount of heating, cooling and water use per person.

The planning board ruled an increased zoning for the development would be “too dense” for the neighborhood, even though Broadway is a four-lane arterial with frequent bus service. Concerns about worsening traffic from this relatively modest development drew criticism, even though a majority of traffic on the corridor in peak hours results from commuters outside of the city limits, part of Boulder’s 65,000 regional daily in-commuters. 

Rather than supporting a project which meets its long-term goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled and providing more affordable housing options, Boulder’s planning board instead supported a development pattern which worsens the city’s long-term difficulties.

Excerpt from Boulder struggles to meet its own ideals, originally published in the Denver Post on December 9, 2016.

Several months after that decision, council again had an option to promote housing at the site by changing the land use designation. And again, by a slim margin, council rejected the proposed change. 

Council “supported a land-use designation that none of them seemed to like, paving the way for new housing types that none of them seem to think Boulder needs,” the Daily Camera wrote at the time.

“We’re going to end up with 13 or 14 really, really expensive houses, on a transit corridor, and everyone’s going to say, ‘How’d that happen?'” councilman Bob Yates was quoted as saying. “And I’m going to say, ‘Well, way back on April 11, council made a decision that maybe wasn’t well thought-out.'”

Iris and Broadway is once again up for redevelopment. The proposal calls for 13 townhomes, each just under 3,000 square feet, on the lot now zoned for mixed-use residential. The project is by-right, meaning that council and planning board will not likely be involved in the process.

We don’t have a current estimate of the price of these homes, but a recent proposal at 2504 Spruce includes 2,600-square-foot townhomes that will sell for up to $2.4 million each, according to developers.

Housing markets in Boulder are fundamentally broken. Rising wealth inequality coupled with successful NIMBY campaigns to stop new housing has created a truly dire situation. On top of losing an additional 1,000+ homes in the area from the Marshall Fire, Boulder’s housing problems are only due to increase for years.

Council can’t affect what happens at 3303 Broadway. Our housing affordability crisis hasn’t changed, but one thing has: We have a city council that’s the most pro-housing in decades.

Council needs to ensure future housing meets our city’s goals. Take opportunities to “upzone” land that is centrally located and accessible by biking, walking and transit. 

Further, we can and should look at some of their housing ideas proposed by council members for 2022 and how they can address our housing affordability challenges:

  • Encourage smaller, less expensive housing through code requirements
  • Create a deed-restricted middle-income housing program, with density incentives and pilot projects
  • Change inclusionary housing fees to stop incentivizing larger units
  • Shorten the process and reduce city fees for projects with more than half affordable units

Our council has some great ideas to move forward. It’s time for them to meet the moment and implement them now.

Eric Budd is a resident of Boulder working on equitable housing and transportation policy. Follow him on Twitter: @ericmbudd

Got a different take? Send your own op-ed to

Housing Opinion

7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Other, more truly progressive cities around the country have embraced the Tiny House Community model; see the link to the excellent Washington Post article from a few years ago below. Here in Boulder, Tiny Houses are a non-starter for those involved in the homeless shelter/services industry (which is comprised of both government agencies and private nonprofits). I suspect that the self-governing aspect of Tiny House Communities may be the biggest reason that Boulder do-gooders reject the entire model — as if they’ve shown any ability to find innovative solutions themselves. Housing First apartments like we see at 1175 Lee Hill are $300K for initial construction, and there is NO requirement for HF residents to work toward sobriety. (Last time I asked one of my acquaintances who lives in that facility, no fewer than 7 residents had died of alcohol-related causes since it opened in 2014.) Tiny House Communities don’t tolerate misbehavior of any kind, and do expect some “sweat equity” from residents both up-front and for ongoing maintenance. This gives folks living there pride and self-respect you’ll never find at the Lee Hill Wet House! See WaPo story:

    BTW, my personal housing issue has been solved by the necessity to move into a long-term care facility in Adams County, CO.

  2. Our council has some great ideas and a lot of State of Colorado laws that prevent us from paying for most of them. We have to lobby to change our out of date Republican era state laws that prevent us from enacting a progressive municipal income tax to fund affordable housing (or anything else for that matter) and to allow rent control. If we can’t legally tax our local wealthy people since they’re obviously not giving enough local charity we’re never going to solve the problem of affordable housing or homelessness. All expendive popular progressive cities should be buying, building and maintaining permanently affordable rental housing and permanently affordable home ownership. The free market only responds to the needs of the rich and upper middle class. As for tiny houses they’re great if you plan to be single, childless and plan to live like a monk or nun for the rest of your life. I don’t think true progressives support lowering society’s basic living standards while glamorizing and marketing 19th century poverty as the new normal. “Van life”, tiny homes and boarding houses packed with 7 by 10 foot bedrooms aren’t a progressive solution. That’s just more of the same heartless libertarianism that’s ravaged our country since the Reagan administration.

    • So, only a small percentage of the homeless on the streets will wind up with a roof and four walls in the absence of cost-effective Tiny House Commnuities. That’s the exclusionary policy of Boulder’s homeless shelter/services industry, and we can all see how badly it serves those in need.

      BTW, have you ever been homeless yourself? I have, for a decade in Boulder, and I would have jumped at the chance to live in a self-governing Tiny House Community. Most others in my former circumstances feel the same way!

  3. Your argument is a false choice between lots of tiny houses for lots of homeless people or only a few apartments for a few homeless people. Im arguing thats a morally bankrupt libertarian argument that assumes no increase in funding and makes no demands of the wealthy people in our society that have the money to fix this problem and continue to choose not to.
    Im arguing we need to get serious about fixing homelessness and that means we need a lot more money to work with. If we can’t successfully shame our gluttonous local millionaires and billionaires into fixing this problem because they have no shame, guilt or compassion then we need to tax them and we need to change state law to do it. This is also the case for most of the other “progressive” cities with serious homelessness and a lot of them don’t even have the excuse of a state law stopping them. Yes I was homeless briefly as a teenager in NYC a long time ago. I was one of Boulder’s poorer long time residents from 1999 to 2015 and have finally found housing security in Thistle’s permanently affordable housing program. I’m painfully aware of how bad our local housing situation has gotten from 15 years of lived experience. Admittedly I used to know a lot more homeless residents of Boulder back when I was really scraping by then I do now. The city used to be a lot safer place to be homeless and much more help was available in the past. After the crash of 2008 our local system was swamped and its never recovered. I’m completely open to adding more self governing collectively owned trailer parks as part of the solution. Trailers have minimum sizes and legal construction requirements tiny houses lack. But it’s crucial that the residents own there own trailer park or they are usually exploitated and subject to constant degrading harassment by the trailer park owners. Sam Tabachnik has done some excellent reporting on this problem in Colorado.

  4. Sober communities are great for some people. However many homeless people do not have drug or alcohol problems and forcing them into a sober community is paternalistic and degrading. They have plenty of self respect and they do not need or want constant monitoring by busybodies to regularly check on their sobriety. Its hard to have any self respect when you’re a full grown adult being treated like a chlid in your own home. Some homeless people are disabled and may require medical marijuana. Is there a place for them in your sober community? I believe in Housing first. The alternative puts people out in the cold to get frostbite or freeze to death.

    • A few years ago, in my role as blogger about homelessness in Boulder, I published the publicly-available info on how the local homeless shelter/services industry had spent its money to “address homelessness” by building the 1175 Lee Hill Housing First facility (31 units), the 4747 Table Mesa Ready to Work project (space for 44 residents), and the Attention Homes 1440 Pine complex (40 apartments). The grand total for initial construction came to $24.5M to serve just 115 individuals. Doing the math, that’s $213K+ for each in up-front costs! I concluded that lack of funding is NOT an issue — it’s what is being done with it. Which brings me to my focus on Tiny House Communities that are being built in some cities like Madison, WI for $5,000 each on land donated for the purpose and with the broad support of the community; by all accounts, it’s been a rousing success! I’ll again post the excellent Washington Post article on this housing model, and urge everyone to consider it carefully:

      To my knowledge, there isn’t a so-called SOBER housing option available to any homeless substance abuser in Boulder, CO who wants one. I was once approached by a staff member (who shall be anonymous here) about becoming a resident at 1175 Lee Hill, where I would have been surrounded by the sort of active alcoholics I had chosen to avoid as a homeless camper. I thought this was NUTS, and I firmly said so.

      Tiny House Communities are springing up all over the country, and almost all of those who move into them are improving their lot in life — so I count that as money well spent! And you aren’t required to be sober, either, just behave decently with respect for others.

      No point in soaking the rich for higher and higher taxes, if all you do is waste the $$$.

      Max R. Weller
      Elms Haven Center 809B
      12080 Bellaire Way
      Thornton, CO 80241

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: