Introducing a New Take on Colorado’s Affordable Housing and Land Use Debates  

This article is part of a series of work by contributor Robin Kniech, a 2023-24 Bell Policy Center Fellow who is developing a case study and narrative work around land use reform issues in Colorado. Learn More

By Robin Kniech

After a lovely sabbatical, I’m returning to the public sphere as a Bell Policy Center Economic Mobility Fellow focused on affordable housing. I’ll contribute reflections and case studies to Colorado’s debate on addressing our housing crisis through land-use reforms — informed by a dozen years governing Denver as a City Councilmember and as an active participant in regional, state, and national collaborations on affordability.  

The housing crisis touches everyone: low- and moderate-income households, families of all incomes through their emerging young adult kids or aging parents, and employers unable to find or retain workers. My work will be focused primarily through the lens of equity: Who is most housing cost-burdened today, what type and price of housing is most needed, and who is most at risk of being left behind if proposed policies don’t produce that housing as intended? In Colorado, the data overwhelmingly show the greatest need is among the half of Coloradans earning less than $75,000, renters, families looking to get into entry-level first-time home ownership, and those experiencing housing instability or homelessness. And it includes households that are Black, Indigenous, Latino or people of color from other multi-racial backgrounds who face homeownership wealth disparities, likely higher rent burden and are also at risk of displacement when housing prices rise.  

In this project, I’ll illuminate omissions and manipulations of data that have skewed the conversation around tools that could improve the odds of achieving affordability in accelerated housing growth through land use reforms. I’m going to research equity components or implications often skipped over in land use case studies from other cities or states and share lessons learned. And I’ll gather policy ideas for pairing equity and affordability with land use that have been circulating throughout Colorado and elsewhere and put them together in a toolkit, so they are more accessible to those seeking to shape better outcomes in our growth. 

Why me? Community critics from my time in office will tell you I was “in bed with developers,” because during my years as an at-large member of Denver City Council I voted to increase density along transit corridors, in major redevelopment areas, and to pave the way for mixed use development to accommodate housing growth in our city. Oh, and I reduced parking requirements near transit and raised occupancy limits in single family homes, too. I see that smart, compact growth and zoning reforms have a role to play in addressing our housing needs and reducing climate impacts.  

Meanwhile, real estate and developer critics will tell you the affordable housing requirements for new residential development, taxes, and fees on new commercial buildings I championed and passed during these same years, are “killing development” here. A few even called me a “communist.” More than 10,000 families have new affordable apartments at rents they can afford, and thousands exited homelessness through local housing and homelessness funds I sponsored, and hundreds of thousands more have benefited or will in the future from one-time rental support, down payment assistance on a new home, or affordable rental housing. So, I also understand how public policy can create standards and meet community needs where the market is unwilling to meet them on its own.  

While five of my colleagues lost elections during these years in campaigns dominated by controversy over growth and development, I was re-elected twice. Apparently somewhere between the extremes on the anti-/pro-growth spectrum, my approach to supporting responsible growth with high standards for affordability and equity resonated with Denver voters. Colorado opinion polling and ballot measures show similarly nuanced sentiments across our state:  

  • Seventy-eight percent of Coloradans support a state law to allow Accessory Dwelling Units homes (a.k.a. mother-in-law apartments attached to or behind a home) to be built on the same property as single family according to January 2024 polling by Centennial State Prosperity.  
  • Pollsters with different political leanings, asking slightly different questions, at different times, have found varying support for state legislation requiring more density near transit:

    – Just under 50 percent support for the policy as of November 2023, according to the bipartisan Colorado Polling Institute (CPI) (but only 37 percent support and 42 percent oppose in suburban areas).  

    – The more conservative firm Magellan found 69 percent support for the same policy just a few months earlier, in September 2023.  

    – The more left-leaning Centennial State Prosperity poll found 68 percent support in January 2024, but with the added sweetener in their question of “and providing financial assistance to cities and counties for these projects.” That’s a promise that may be hard to fulfill at scale given Colorado’s fiscal realities under TABOR.   
  • There are either polling differences or dropping support for changes to single family zoning to allow duplexes, triplexes or more homes per lot: two-thirds of voter supported this change in a January 2023 Healthier Colorado poll compared to a split 46 percent support/47 percent oppose, according to Magellan’s September 2023 poll, notably after the 2023 legislation failed.  
  • Popular votes to limit growth won several years ago in cities such as Golden and Lakewood. Although these kinds of laws are now prohibited by 2023 state legislation, voters across Colorado are evenly split in supporting and opposing that state law (Magellan). 
  • Sixty percent support for equity measures like requiring some affordability in new development (unpublished 2020 polling by Healthier Colorado) and rent control/stabilization policies that limit how much rent can increase over time (Magellan).  

Yet, media and public dialogue on Governor Jared Polis’ big 2023 proposal to solve affordability through land use reform, SB23-213, fixated more on sexy political battle lines than engaging this nuanced pivot point tying land use to affordability: Governor vs. local governments and local control. Or NIMBY opposition to any changes to single family zoning. Both raise important perspectives and questions, but these political story lines typically skip over questions about how affordability can be achieved through land use, what Coloradans actually think about the prospects of the changes to really help them, or how their sincere concerns might be impacting the politics. While those opposed to changes to single family zoning in the Magellan poll cited concerns typically associated with NIMBY positions like local control and protecting limited resources, among their top five concerns was also distrust that the housing created would really be affordable.  

Inside the Capitol in 2023, the affordability outcomes were debated. Well-intentioned advocates and legislators fought to amend land-use proposals and ran companion bills to improve the odds that rental properties, in particular, would really alleviate the housing burdens of average, moderate-income Coloradans and wouldn’t exacerbate displacement. But there was no widespread dialogue or educational campaign with average Coloradans about how or why land use would result in affordability or could or should be linked to equitable affordable standards inside or beyond the dome.  

One script out there is that the land use bill died because of in-fighting between Democratic Senators. Another is that local governments torpedoed it through those legislators over their unwillingness to cede local control. Surely truth in both. But my take is that the state of Colorado wasn’t ready.  

We didn’t build the deep coalition most communities achieving meaningful, widely supported land-use reforms have. The most successful models elsewhere, such as Oregon, brought together equity-oriented advocates working at the community level to advance affordability, racial equity and quality of life for those struggling to make ends meet with those who might support growth from a more market-based perspective such as real estate development interests, along with climate advocates who see the resources saved by compact growth over sprawl. In many efforts, equity and affordability actually preceded land use reforms. For example, California is a popular model, but few seem to know that they had statewide caps on rent increases and limitations on evicting tenants without cause in place before they ended single family zoning in their famous Senate Bill 9 legislation. 

Colorado’s 2023 effort sought to court affordability and equity advocates, but they were not partners co-leading the effort. No equity components were built into the original drafts of the bills. And the effort didn’t spend any time showing regular Coloradans how these reforms would build housing they could afford. The proponents just told us it would.  

The people of Colorado didn’t buy what they were told. So, our elected leaders didn’t pass it. Some might say that’s politics working the way it’s supposed to?  

There is some evidence for my theory by threading some needles between poll numbers. Opinion polling involves two important numbers: favorability and intensity. Favorability is just do you support or not support something. Intensity tests how strongly you feel about it. While 78 percent of voters may be in favor ADUs and between 49 and 69 percent may favor requiring more housing at transit stations, depending on which poll, I can tell from the lack of any mass movement in 2023 that few Coloradans felt passionate enough to pressure their legislators or local elected officials to support last year’s land-use reforms even if they “supported” them. A closer look at the CPI Polling cited above shows only 21 percent strongly support the transit proposal, for example. (Magellan shows 39 percent out of 69, and Centennial shows 33 percent out of 68 percent strongly supporting it).  

Taking on hardcore NIMBY is a different proposition altogether. But I believe both the nuanced opinions and the intensity gap among an arguable majority of Coloradans can be traced to our lived experience with growth. We’ve actually seen quite a few construction cranes — in cities, suburbs, and mountain resort communities — these past few years. And moderate-income Coloradans don’t believe they’ve felt the benefits in housing prices they can afford, so we feel skepticism that more of what we’ve seen is the answer to what’s ailing us. The Magellan poll found that 55 percent of Coloradans felt residential development has already been too fast over the past five years.  

This is the elephant in the state conversation. Is our recent growth’s failure to stave off an affordability crisis proof that land-use reform and more residential growth is the wrong path?  

Some experts and stakeholders would argue the scale of recent growth wasn’t sufficient for the pent-up demand and population growth we faced. The crisis might have been even worse without it, but it simply wasn’t enough to meet demand and prevent price increases. Others would say it takes time for the benefits of new housing growth to be felt. Still others will argue that new housing wasn’t paired with enough affordability standards soon enough, to ensure it reached those who needed help the most. There’s actually data to support each of these arguments in the dueling academic literature and the lived experience in communities across Colorado and the country.  

Demographic data, ranging from aging households remaining in place to pending new household formations (i.e. kids growing up and wanting to move out) to doubled up families, and future job growth projections support the need for more housing in many regions of our state to meet current and future demand, even though population growth through in-migration is slowing. Albeit close examination of construction trends and our unique tourism context suggests doing so with wider open eyes about market behavior and more equity and affordability components to reach the housing types and prices Colorado workers are really needing and earning. See, for example, this report from the Colorado Futures Center or similar research forthcoming on supply and demand mismatch in the Denver metro region conducted by University of Colorado-Denver Professor Carrie Makarewicz.  

This project posits a longer, wider, messier conversation about all of this is necessary because our future livability depends on getting beyond dug-in, oversimplified positions that the market is the answer alone, without any standards, or has no role at all.  

The 2023 land-use debate is back this Legislative session in smaller, separate bills, with the supposed exception of the bill to open up single family zoning to duplexes, fourplexes or more, which has been put on hold. We’ve also been told to expect more equity components built into the bills that do run. I won’t be taking positions on any specific legislation or following the bills blow by blow. The questions will likely remain the same. Have we shown the people of Colorado enough about how these policies work? Have we built a broad enough base of trust and buy-in to support not only passage, but also long-term implementation in local communities? Will they effectively build housing for the Coloradans who need this housing the most?  

This project’s research and analysis will also zero in on a couple specific hot topics within the larger debate:  

  • I’ll expose why one important policy intervention that Denver passed, widely known as inclusionary housing but called Expanding Housing Affordability in Denver, is not having the impact on apartment development in Denver claimed by real estate interests. I’ll walk through flaws in their use of permit data, underweighting of market factors, and other development pipeline indicators along with reviewing the national economic research.  
  • Accessory dwelling unit zoning is a holy grail for many land use reform advocates. Data on where ADU zoning is already in place and how many units have been produced in Colorado communities has been underreported and will shed light on barriers beyond zoning that require policy attention. Zoning doesn’t build ADUs, a third to a half million dollars does, and finance strategies are a key piece of the puzzle. Some of these can work at cross purposes with renting these units to moderate-income households as long-term rentals. I’ll look at intentional strategies needed to go along with zoning.  
  • A deep dive into construction defects is beyond the scope of this fellowship. However,  Denver experimented with creating several all-affordable condominium projects near transit-oriented developments and we’ll follow up to see what, if any, lessons were learned regarding construction defects in these unique projects that might inform similar models or the overall debate.  

The land-use equity toolkit will be the finale of the project late in 2024.   

If following and engaging in the conversation sounds like fun to you, I’m sorry for your social life, but please subscribe to my new substack account or follow along @kniechatlarge on X.