At kitchen tables in Colorado and across America, families, partners, roommates, and friends mention the housing crisis alongside chit chat about work, school, concern over the pandemic, and plans for celebrations. Whether you are 65 or 25, married or single, managing a family or managing yourself, you cannot escape the increasing burden of putting a roof over your head, affordably.
A home is more than just a place of shelter, it is a social determinant of health, a predictor of our children’s future earning potential, the foundational need of our lives. The desire to have a safe and stable place to leave and return to, to rest and to celebrate, unites us. Home can enrich or impoverish our experience on this earth as humans. And regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of political dialogue, it is why housing as a human right is increasingly a part of our national discourse.
This immense pull on our psyche as humans is why we are here. We are two newly appointed Terry J. Stevinson Common Sense Institute Fellows charged with examining the affordability of housing in Colorado. We have diverse experience and backgrounds informed by differing political ideologies. One of us is a left-leaning houser who has worked to reframe how housing authorities approach affordable housing and has successfully built affordable homes in Colorado. The other is a right-leaning policymaker who has dedicated her career to public service and has developed and implemented policies at national and local levels of government. While we might at times differ in our viewpoints, we are united by a belief that housing is the cornerstone of the American dream and a key to ending generational poverty.
At our core, we believe that reaching pragmatic and common-sense solutions that work for Colorado deserves thoughtful and rigorous discussions, even with those with whom you might disagree. Perhaps especially with those with whom you disagree. That is why, as we find ourselves trying to outrun Colorado’s housing crisis, we are thankful for the opportunity to turn from political ideologies and work collaboratively with one another to find solutions.
If we are to solve this crisis we must put aside ideology and political labels to focus on the heartbeats that we work to house.
Housing, whether market rate, missing middle, affordable or attainable, rental or for sale, does not boil down to merely bricks and sticks. It is quite literally about the people we build for. We call housing affordability in Colorado a crisis because when people cannot afford homes, it affects everyone, not just those who are looking for an affordable apartment, moving their families from apartment to apartment while working diligently to stave off eviction. It also impacts Coloradans who are struggling to buy their first home, as available homes for sale are at an all-time low, sending prices skyrocketing. Denver ranked as the second most competitive market in the nation, behind only San Diego, with 66% of buyers ensnarled in bidding wars per Redfin in November 2019. Housing affordability affects all parts of the economy and has cascading impacts on employers, laborers, governments, and consumers. More importantly, it affects our community, our neighbors, us.
We have a verifiable crisis. Yet with such dire impacts on our livelihoods and neighborhoods, we have yet to adequately address the fundamental opposition to housing development on a personal, a psychological level.
Simply categorizing people as NIMBY or YIMBY based on their response to development does not acknowledge that we naturally fear change, and housing development represents the epitome of change. Traffic, density, neighborhood composition, property value, historical preservation, environmental impact, status, crime. Any perceived threat to our everyday normal experience causes us to react hyper-rationally, sometimes against even our own closely held ideals and best interests.
If you accept that this arrhythmia drives our housing development decisions, it is easy to understand why communities suffer as they try to build enough housing to keep pace with population growth. As humans we fear what the unknown presents. Because we have never built enough, we don’t know what enough looks like. What makes us comfortable is not feasible due to the availability and cost of land, building materials, the cost of water, or the myriad costs associated with the entitlement process. As Coloradans until we embrace the psychological elements of our shared human experience, we remain at risk of perpetuating our collective inability to create the housing options our growing cities and state requires. We’re not broken. We’re not wrong. We’re human and we are constantly running away from the fundamental concerns that housing development forces us to confront as a community.
Any Google search of overcoming fear will tell you that acknowledgment is the first step. This natural fear of change underlies our premise. As humans we have developed a negativity bias as a defense mechanism, but we are not powerless; we have the means to adapt and overcome our initial opposition to growth. This belief and understanding will drive our work as fellows as we identify the reasons we lack affordable housing, the key drivers that led us here, and set forth priorities for Coloradans, communities, and policymakers who play a role in equitable, inclusionary, and feasible housing solutions.
Despite a strong economy and new housing innovations, housing affordability in Colorado has continued to worsen. Per the Colorado Health Institute as of 2019 the average home price in Colorado has increased 77% in the past decade, compared to the average income of Coloradans increasing by only 4.5%.
The experience of renters in our state tracks along these same lines as average Coloradan rents have increased 38% since 2013, with 50% of renters reported as housing burdened in 2018, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as individuals paying more than 30% of their income on rent. The situation only worsens when we consider our severely low-income Coloradans earning 30% or less of Area Median Income of whom 86.5% are housing burdened.
Housing affordability has long been an issue for low-income renters, however, even middle-income households face challenges with affordability.
Housing prices have risen so high that many working full time in careers once recognized for their stability cannot afford a place to call home. This has given rise to the term “workforce housing” which targets middle-income workers such as teachers, police officers, health care workers, and the like who cannot afford to live in the city in which they work and don’t qualify for housing subsidies.
Homeowners and renters alike feel the walls around them growing closer and closer every day. This is true whether you live along the Front Range, the Western Slope, or communities in between. This severe housing crisis facing us as Coloradans was the reality prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and has only been exacerbated during these trying times.
As we continue to face a housing affordability crisis, many others before us have analyzed and identified policy solutions to achieve housing affordability. Many have tried to adapt these solutions to work across Colorado, be it Lakewood, Limon or Pueblo, because any policy must embrace local control, which is the Colorado way of life, deeply entrenched in our American manner of self-governance. Policies such housing subsidies, land use and regulatory reform, tax reform, financial assistance, or various combinations of all of the above, dominate the conversation. Don’t even get us started on the price of lumber and steel! As a nation we have identified the tools that policymakers have in their toolbox to impact housing development. Yet, while we have drawn lines and defended these policy positions based on leading best practices, we have not incorporated the human element in our policymaking and implementation, with the results speaking for themselves to date.
Rather than uniting in alleviating the cost-burden equation for 50% of our fellow Coloradans, we have made great strides in uniting in shared polarization over the right and wrong ways to put a roof over our heads. The politics have gotten away from the policy of housing development and has made solving our housing crisis increasingly difficult, regardless of the long menu of strategies and policy interventions available.
Our lawmakers and policymakers pick and choose from the menu to address specific issues with little regard as to how the market functions and reacts. For example, adopting green building mandates might help achieve the laudable goal of climate sustainability, however, one must recognize the resulting implications on housing development, and yes, affordability.
Further, who is bearing the economic premiums for these new requirements? Like a doctor who only treats symptoms instead of the underlying disease, we won’t get very far with single-focus prescriptions. If we want attainable, affordable housing, we need to discuss attainable, affordable solutions.
Yet real solutions that work for all Coloradans and our communities will require us to imagine the Colorado we want to live in and understand the trade-offs that come with any solution. This applies to any phase of our Coloradan housing continuum; affordable, workforce, or market rate.
Our work as fellows is an unmasking. A stripping down of the politics we wear to address the housing crisis as humans who choose to live alongside one another in our beloved Colorado. We are aligned by our shared belief that we can live peacefully as communities, that invest in one another, harnessing the diversity, talent, resources and power inherent in each of us.
We agree that finding the right balance of housing policy that works is extremely local. As we look to the future of housing in Colorado, we are aligned by the hope provided by public-private partnerships, opportunity zones, land trusts, co-ops, accessory dwelling units, offsite building methods, and social impact investing to name a brief few. While the policy tools are known and often readily available, the willingness of communities to trust their origins and practical applications are in doubt, often causing these very tools to go underutilized. Yet still, we see great promise in our collective future.
We recognize reaching pragmatic, common-sense solutions will require us to face our fears and embrace them even though we are programmed to retreat into the familiar confines of what makes us feel safe. In today’s America, political polarization has spilled over into our communities, our public places, and every part of our lives. Our common experience has become one of extremes that no longer can be written off as a Washington, D.C., “swamp” problem, detached from Colorado’s “Main Street.” We will not build ourselves out of this crisis along party lines, but we can build solutions that align people regardless of political affiliation and ideologies.
The right to be housed is a national conversation and it is evolving. We no longer recognize this as a problem exclusive to housing authorities or developers. It’s a problem for families, for neighbors, for mothers and sons. Social change movements start as the voices of our families, our friends and colleagues, rising with a homogeneous crescendo representing the majority of Coloradans echoing throughout our city halls, our counties, and ultimately the statehouse.
Without affordable housing options, without support of one another in pursuit of affordable housing options, we will not be able to achieve the Colorado way of life, which is in essence the realization of a life spent in the pursuit of happiness for all.
With an aspirational ethos, and a commitment to our state, we bring open minds and eager ears tuned to the people who we are building housing solutions for, and the practitioners who endeavor each day to increase housing affordability across Colorado.
We will resist racing to conclusions, though we bring assumptions formed by our own origin stories and experiences. We hope you’ll look for our report in June. Together we embrace this rare opportunity provided by the Common Sense Institute to explore what it means to let the heartbeats of Coloradans compose the solutions we will propose.
Peter Lifari and Evelyn Lim are Terry J. Stevinson Fellows at the Common Sense Institute, which is based in Greenwood Village. Their full study will be published this summer.