Where should poor people be allowed to live?

Image by Anders Holm Jensen via Unsplash

Saturday, May 21, 2022

When affordable homes are in short supply, where should Boulder build it, and how far should the government go to punish people who survive by living in cars or on public land? Those where the questions elected officials debated this week as Boulder city council weighed plans to add housing in East Boulder and county commissioners rejected plans to punish people without housing.

Below, a look at action from the city and county this week:

Business concerns kill plan for housing near pharma manufacturing plant

Boulder’s leaders have spent the past month finalizing the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan, a master document meant to guide redevelopment in the jobs-heavy area for the next several decades. With public engagement wrapped and the plan nearing completion, city council in the eleventh hour took an area near Corden Pharma’s manufacturing plant off the table for future housing, until such time as heavy industry no longer existed there.

It removed some 150 homes called for in the plan, which has been in development for three years. The move was made at the behest of Corden Pharma over concerns that its manufacturing operation would come in conflict with potential future neighbors over light, noise and pollution. 

Similarly, users of Boulder Municipal Airport got a last-minute add to the plan to mitigate complaints from future potential residents. Council already receives many missives related to airport noise from nearby homeowners.

Read: Potential housing nixed from plan after drug manufacturer pushback. Boulder Reporting Lab 

“I’m a proponent of housing, but I’m a proponent of housing done right,” said councilwoman Junie Joseph. “We want more housing, but we want desirable housing.”

Said councilwoman Tara Winer, “In a sense, I feel like we’re protecting people by saying we’re not going to build housing here.”

Low-income renters, particularly people of color, have historically been pushed up against heavy industry and transportation by local zoning regulations like Boulder’s, and state and federal governments who run highways right though the heart of historic low-income neighborhoods, particularly Black ones. Health disparities related to such decisions are well-documented.

Others on council pushed back, noting the severe housing shortage and its link to growing homelessness — itself a major driver of illness and early death.

“We have people living on the streets, in their cars, in pretty unsafe situations right now because we don’t have enough housing,” said councilwoman Nicole Speer. “Not everybody has the ability to live in a nice neighborhood. People need roofs.”

“Saying we’re not going to have housing in an area precludes any designs or creative solutions that might mitigate our concerns,” said councilwoman Lauren Folkerts, an architect. “This might be a new type of living than we have elsewhere in Boulder, but the community engagement suggests that’s what is wanted.”

The vote to remove housing near Corden Pharma was 6-3, with councilwomen Speer, Folkerts and Rachel Friend dissenting. All three voted with the rest of council to adopt the plan as a whole, with recommended changes.

Boulder’s second subcommunity plan is not approved yet — Planning Board and council have to agree on conditions, and council rejected a key Planning Board provision that would put a hard cap on the number of jobs allowed in East Boulder. 

“In general, the city doesn’t regulate numbers of jobs,” said Kathleen King, a city senior planning. “Employment fluctuates over time, and the dynamics post-COVID are really changing.”

There are city goals for balancing jobs and housing, and specific policies can be used to limit the amount of jobs, as Boulder has done by updating rules on where office space can be located. The East Boulder Subcommunity Plan, for example, allows offices only in certain areas and limited to specific floors of buildings.

Flatiron Business Park today has 24% of all Boulder’s jobs. The plan strives to maintain that share over 20 years, King said.

County commissioners nix camping ban — for now

One place people can keep living is on the streets of unincorporated Boulder County, in cars or otherwise. Two county commissioners rejected a camping ban similar to ones in Boulder and Longmont. Laws in those cities have pushed people onto county land, officials argued.

The ordinance would have subjected people living in their cars to fines, similar to (though more expensive than) parking tickets: up to $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for third and subsequent violations. 

Such policies have been decried by civil rights activists, advocates and experts on homelessness as well as people who themselves live unsheltered, who argue that they criminalize poverty and living situations of folks with few other legal options. Research has shown that laws undermine stability and trust in the system, disrupting lives and extending time spent unhoused.

Fines and fees “can potentially affect a credit report,” said commissioner Marta Loachamin, making it harder to qualify for housing. “There are effects.”

Concerns also exist about the legality of the measure as written, which was worded to allow searches of tents or vehicles without a warrant, in direct violation of the constitutional right to privacy.

Read: Boulder County Commissioners reject camping ban. Daily Camera

Proponents acknowledge that criminalizing homelessness is not a solution, but say that some action is needed to assuage the concerns of homes and businesses as well as damage to county land, typically in the form of trash and sewage.

“This certainly isn’t going to solve the problem,” Sheriff Joe Pelle said. “This is just one tool to allow us to deal with one particular aspect that’s problematic for our community. I have a constituency of people who are living in homes and neighborhoods that are being impacted. 

This is realistically our only option, other than to just not regulate it and allow it to happen.”

A county camping ban is not dead yet. Commissioners may revisit the ordinance after revisions.

$3.1M allocated to wildfire resilience, other council priorities

In the first adjustment to the 2022 budget, the city added more than $3 million to projects and programs the new city council has directed staff to pursue. Allocations include:

$612,500 for Housing and Human Services

  • $375K to rehab existing city facility for “homeless respite center”
  • $40K for middle-income down payment assistance pilot
  • $70K for 5-year strategic plan for inclusionary housing
  • $7,500 for survey on updating ADU regulations
  • $120K for expansion of HOA assessment pilot 

$503,900 for wildfire + disaster preparedness:

  • $250K to accelerate climate resilience work
  • $109,933 to hire wildland staffing for OSMP
  • $43,967 for wildfire home assessments
  • $100K for wildland fire equipment

The bulk of spending ($2 million) is for hiring 22.5 full-time employees, including several in the Housing and Human Services Department for things like homeless outreach, crisis response and eviction prevention.

Guaranteed income coming soon

Council will also revisit a plan to give cash assistance to low-income Boulderites. Staff proposed spending federal COVID recovery dollars on a pilot, which have fueled the proliferation of programs across the nation.

Twenty-eight cities have started guaranteed income projects, with 12 more in the wings. Typically, recipients receive $500 per month for about two years. Times and amounts vary from city to city, as do who receives the funds.

Cambridge, Mass., gives money to “single caretakers” while Alexandria, Virginia, randomly selected households earning at or below 50% of Area Median Income. Newark, New Jersey, went broad, offering assistance to anyone “experiencing housing insecurity.” (Mountain View, Calif., home to Google, was the stingiest among the examples staff listed, allocating payments for just one year to a very specific groups: “extremely low-income” families with kids.)

A report from Stockton, Calif., one of the first U.S. cities to implement guaranteed income, found increased levels of employment, improved mental health, food security and housing stability and “an increased ability to set goals, consider new job opportunities and take risks (e.g., taking time off from a current job to pursue other options like internships or job training) and meet family needs associated with caregivers’ working full-time.”

Boulder offered direct cash assistance in much smaller amounts, using a $100,000 grant from the Colorado Left Behind Workers Fund in 2020. $1,000 was given to 94 people to whom unemployment benefits and federal stimulus dollars were not available; results were not reported in notes to council.

If approved by council — a first look garnered majority support — cash could begin flowing to Boulderites at the beginning of 2023.

Next week’s discussion will also include a discussion of Boulder’s budget and long-term financial outlook.

Also this week

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

Help make the Beat better. Was there a perspective we missed, or facts we didn’t consider? Email your thoughts to boulderbeatnews@gmail.com

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