(This story appeared in The Boulder Weekly on Nov. 2, 1995.)
By Mark Fearer *
Affordable housing, that apparent oxymoron is getting more than it's predictable amount of lip service this election. The catalyst seems to be that perennial issue, growth, which is headed to the voters again not just in Boulder but in Lafayette and Longmont.
The debate rages on - can managed slow growth and affordable housing sleep together under the same roof, or will they always be strangers? Is Boulder destined to become more elite as time goes on? Many believe the latter. However, there are a surprising number of options for increasing the affordable housing stock.
By the way, it should be noted that the Slow Growth! proposal won't affect the number of residential permits allocated. According to Boulder Housing Planner Cindy Pieropan, current allocations of 300 housing permits are less than the 1% mandated under Slow Growth.
So let's start with the basics - what is meant by that favorite buzzword, "affordable?" Obviously, it depends on who you ask. Kathy McCormick, director for the Boulder Housing Division, says that 30% of a person's income is the measuring stick that determines affordability. That translates into a $60-80,000 house for a low income person, or about a $150,000 for a middle-income person.
Developers and builders might be coaxed into building something less than the median price ($236,000), thus qualifying it for the affordable label - but it doesn't stay that way after it's first sale. The magic market inflates it's value beyond the reach of most. That's where the issue of permanent affordability increasingly comes up, especially for city policy.
A relatively new strategy is to make a house really affordable by subsidizing it for a low-income person or family. In return, when the house is resold, it must go to someone in the same income group. A sibling to this deed restriction is a limited equity agreement, which allows only a small increase in appreciation on resale, again in return for subsidies that would lower the price.
Let's start off with looking at affordable housing solutions for existing housing.
Legalizing co-operative housing is currently making it's way though the labyrinth of city bureaucracy. Almost all city council candidates support the idea, according to a recent Citizen's Affordable Housing Coalition (CAHC) questionnaire. It would allow a number of people to pool their meager (or substantial) resources and own a house collectively. Currently, the three-unrelated ordinance restricts the number of adults in a house. As written now, a maximum of 10% of a neighborhood could have a co-op, but it's unlikely to see that much popularity. Advocates acknowledge it wouldn't solve the housing crisis by itself, nor will it automatically be affordable housing - but it will provide more of a chance to people who can't otherwise afford a home on their own. They also say it will create more community, something affordable housing rarely addresses.
Mobile homes (manufactured housing) are an often overlooked but if you already own your mobile home (costing $10,000-65,000) its a relative housing bargain. Mobile home park residents say theirs is the last bastion of unsubsidized affordable housing, but feel increasingly nervous as they see their lot rents edge up. Residents own their home (which isn't very mobile) but must pay rent for the tiny patch of ground it sits on.
Mobile home parks are an endangered species, always under the threat of sale or redevelopment. In Boulder, most mobile home parks can't be redeveloped, thanks to an ordinance passed to protect them - but they can be sold, with rents going up even further than they normally would. Even without a sale however, there's no limit on rent increases, and with an almost 0% vacancy rate, that's a dangerous combination. Mobile home owners are beginning to organize themselves, and want to try and buy the parks themselves.
"The best strategy is purchasing the land as a limited-equity co-op," says Peggy Wrenn, executive director of the Thistle Community Housing. She added that subsidies might be attained in exchange for making it permanently affordable. And the city is looking at just that. Kathy McCormick said the city is interested in some kind of land trust, so as to keep the land affordable. "Our tendency is to want to work with groups with common goals, which for us is to retain permanently affordable and a nice housing environment. If residents want to organize and buy it, we'd be open to that."
The CAHC survey also found unanimity in support for the concept from council candidates.
The first mobile home park resale in years is scheduled to close Oct. 25, at Columbine mobile home park, the lowest rent park in or near Boulder. The prospective owners won't say if rent is going up, but it's a good bet that it will. Some of the people on fixed incomes there say they can't afford any rent increase, and may become homeless because there's no other park that would take their older homes.
At least one other mobile home park is flying with rumors of a sale, although there seems little evidence for the hearsay - so far.
To it's credit, the city has been paying attention, and tried to annex and buy one park in north Boulder already - unfortunately, the owner backed out at the last minute. But city staff say they're in negotiations with some other parks owners.
Of course, when the term affordable housing is used in conversation, rarely is it used with the word "rental." Renters, who make up about 50% of Boulder's population (and probably 95% of low-income residents) are often left out of the discussion, despite their housing costs going up well beyond inflation (while their incomes decrease under inflation.)
The term most people in power want to avoid in the affordable housing debate is "rent control". Growth control is acceptable to most people, but not rent control, despite it's successes in many communities. And it would have the largest and quickest impact of any solutions for creating and/or stabilizing affordable housing.
Moderate rent control also creates and maintains a lot of affordable housing without one more house or apartment being built. While it wouldn't prevent rent increases, it would stop rent gouging, and only allow reasonable increases, based on inflation, maintenance, taxes, insurance and other provable costs. It would allow a lot more workers to live in the city where they work.
State law currently forbids any community from enacting rent control, despite the housing crises. Such a ban may well be unconstitutional, but it can be challenged, and the city of Boulder is in the best position to do it - if it will even utter the phrase.
In spite of little or no support from city staff, the CAHC survey revealed a surprising half of the candidates support it idea.
Peggy Wrenn would also encourage the legalization of accessory dwelling units (ADU), or "mother-in-law" apartments. "It should be relatively easy to have a legal rental unit inside the shell of your existing house," Wren said. "To have two kitchens in a house in most zones is not going to impact a neighborhood heavily." Cindy Pieropan says ADUs are legal in attached units, but only after meeting a number of criteria. If it' a separate building, like a garage, it's illegal.
"Some kinds of infill are appropriate," said Wren. "People who have garages or existing out-buildings ought to be able to convert them to residential structures. Maybe there could be restrictions on the affordability in exchange for permission to do it."
The following concepts can apply to existing housing or new construction.
Like co-ops, cohousing is also based on cooperation, but is a different concept and people often confuse the two. Residents own their own individual unit on land bought in common and as part of a collectively planned neighborhood, which typically has 15-30 units. There is a community house (designed to be an extension of everyone's homes), no interior streets and the houses are usually attached. It is an intentional community and the residents use consensus for their decisions.
Nyland cohousing community in Lafayette was built three years ago, and like most cohousing projects, it is decidedly middle-class. As cities see the benefit to cohousing communities, they have shown more interest in subsidizing some low-income units within the cohousing project. Ironically, an Aspen cohousing group was the first in the country to receive heavy subsidies from both the city and county, allowing workers to actually live in Aspen (many minimum-wage workers have an hour commute.)
Boulder is looking favorably at the idea, and the city council is expected to shortly approve the first cohousing project, next to the Nomad Theatre in north Boulder. Of the 11 units, three have moderate subsidies, (they range from $65 - 75,000 with subsidies) and several will have lighter subsides for moderate income people. In return, the low-income units will have to be maintained as permanently affordable. Construction is scheduled for early 1996, and the group is still open to new members.
Will Fleissig, Boulder planning director says he hopes cohousing or similar communities become a role model for future development. And given tightening restrictions and increased requirements for more permanent affordability, more cohousing may be on it's way. Several developers have expressed interest in incorporating it into the few larger future developments that may happen, although it's unclear how a successful Slow Growth! campaign might affect that optimism. Existing housing can also serve as a cohousing community. Several urban cohousing groups around the country have bought or are attempting to buy apartment complexes.
This election, county residents will be asked to up their sales tax a 10th of a penny to help buy/build affordable housing throughout the county. If passed, supporters say up to $2.5 million will be raised annually, enough to buy 150 homes and keep them permanently affordable. Most people admit that by itself, it won't have a large impact - but it's a major step for the county as a whole, to address an issue that has invaded the entire county.
Mutual housing associations (MHA) offer a more affordable and stable kind of rental. Residents are part of the association that own their units (typically apartment buildings or condos) and pay about one-third of their income for rent, if they are 80 percent or less of the area median income. They have the right to a life long lease, and have a voice in the decisions made about their homes.
The MHAs are non-profit organizations, and can secure funding from a variety of sources (especially HUD loans and grants) to purchase properties. The concept started on the East coast and spread west. Denver has 480 MHA units, and will soon have more.
Although there has been little talk within Boulder's city departments about it, this concept provides some innovative possibilities that a number of low-income people would benefit from.
Speaking of rentals, Thistle Community Housing, a private non-profit organization provides 109 units for low to moderate income people, mostly families. They "develop, acquire, preserve, rehabilitate, own and manage buildings and land, providing rental housing for households which cannot afford market rates, primarily those earning up to 60% of Area Median Income (AMI) and for people with special needs." Typically, rents range from ____________. Thistle housing is the only hope for many families, to be able to stay in Boulder. They just acquired a small apartment complex on the Hill, which they plan on renting to qualified people starting November 1. There are still a few openings.
Wrenn is also championing the idea of community land trusts, which she defines as "a non-profit organization that owns the land underlying affordable homes for sale. The organization is controlled by up to 49% residents on their Board, with the purpose of maintaining permanently affordable and high standards of community interaction and maintenance." She sees it subsidized by CHAP (Community Housing Action Program) and county housing tax and other affordable housing funding mechanisms. Mortgage payments would fund improvements. "A lot of people could afford to buy a house if they didn't have to buy the land - it's 30-40% of the value of most Boulder homes, even attached ones."
Wrenn used an example of Parkside Village, one of Thistle's projects. "We bought the land for $285,000 and as soon as we improved it, it was accessed at almost $900,000 because it had housing on it.
"I think the Community Land Trust is a superb model for the required permanently affordable units under the Growth Management Ordinance."
Wrenn has another interesting suggestion - go up, not just down, by building on top of large shopping centers and other transit centers, and "put really cheap housing on top of grocery stores and commercial buildings, so the people who work there could live there." She added that when land gets to such a premium, there's more incentive to go up - especially when redeveloping an existing structure. She envisioned rents from such housing being around $300/month. "I think it can be done pretty cheaply. The parking could be adequate for both uses - a lot of people wouldn't need have cars, and those that did would presumably not be parking at the same time that the people using the commercial uses. I think there would be a significant market for that, and it probably is one of the few ways it's possible to provide housing for minimum wage workers."
Other affordable housing strategies include requiring a higher percentage of permanently affordable units from developers; an anti-speculation tax to discourage quick turnovers by speculative buying; more incentives for sweat equity programs, such a Habitat for Humanity and the Poplar Project (in partnership between the Affordable Housing Alliance and the City of Boulder Housing Department); and more CU student housing.
Most people, even those in the belly of the (city) beast admit that changes won't happen overnight - which is a big reason for the dearth of affordable housing now. City officials and leaders need to abandon the "endless study" approach and take more risk now. Innovative or new ideas often fade away when put through the process, while poor (and downwardly mobile) people give up hope and leave. The city has got to be more proactive, and quickly.
* Mark Fearer was the Director of the Boulder Tenants Union from 1981-1986. He now writes for local and national publications.
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