Stateline, an Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts
By Sophie Quinton
DENVER — Colorado’s job growth has a downside. Along the urban corridor where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains, home prices are climbing, luxury apartments are multiplying, and commuters are getting stuck in traffic. Parking spaces on some main streets and popular trailheads are jampacked.
Now some locals, frustrated with the pace of development, are trying to slow it down.
Every place that you go, it’s overwhelmed by people, just like California,” said Daniel Hayes, a rental home manager based in Golden, Colorado, who has proposed a statewide ballot initiative to restrict new housing construction in most urban areas, which the Colorado Supreme Court has yet to approve for circulation. “Is that what we want?”
Anti-growth feeling is bubbling up in some Western communities — particularly in cities adding people and housing faster than the national average — even as city leaders and affordable housing advocates call for more homebuilding and downtown density to combat traffic and rising home prices.
In Boise, Idaho, a mayoral candidate this year called for building a wall around the state to keep newcomers out (particularly wealthy Californians). Although that candidate didn’t advance to the runoff, managing growth remains a key question in local politics, said Charles Hunt, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University.
Regardless of where you stand on it,” he said, “the question of growth has been the fundamental policy question in the Treasure Valley over the last five years.”
In Salt Lake County, Utah, residents last year convinced their mayor to veto a huge apartment and townhome project. Utah added residents faster than any other state during the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Salt Lake County’s population jumped by 12%.
And in tiny Elizabeth, Colorado, anti-growth activists are trying to recall all the town’s elected officials for approving development projects they fear will turn Elizabeth — population 1,416 — into the next Denver exurb boomtown. Over the past decade, more than 10,000 people moved to a nearby town, Parker, boosting its population by close to 23%.
To be sure, a nascent “yes in my backyard” movement has led to laws that promote further development in some states, such as Oregon’s new law that allows duplexes to be built in lots zoned for single-family homes.
In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last month signed legislation to speed up building-permit approval and stop local governments from limiting new home construction.
But proponents of such changes still must contend with not-in-my-backyard residents who fear the new laws will encourage more luxury apartments and pricey townhomes rather than truly affordable housing.
Pressure from some California residents and local leaders has hobbled another Democratic-led bill that would override local zoning to allow more housing construction near public transit and job hubs.
Right now, what these bills are doing is — it’s not town planning, it’s town cramming,” said Keith Gurnee, a member of the board of directors of Livable California, a group that opposes the bill. Gurnee said his group wants local governments to retain zoning control.
While the backlash to growth is a national phenomenon, the trend may well be more prevalent in the West, said Megan Lawson, a researcher for Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana.
“The West is growing faster, in terms of jobs and income, than the rest of the U.S.,” she said. “But at the same time, most of that growth is concentrated in the big urban areas.”
Colorado stands out as the only place so far where a statewide limit on growth has been considered and might make next year’s ballot.
Statewide housing measures are rare, said Josh Altic, a project director for Ballotpedia, an election encyclopedia. “It’s really, at its heart, a local issue,” he said. Local ballot measures that address housing and zoning are more common, he said, and often spurred by a project that ticks off locals.
Hayes, who championed a ballot measure that capped residential housing growth in Golden in the 1990s, is now trying to get a statewide measure on the November 2020 ballot that would set a 1% annual growth limit on new housing in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and surrounding cities and suburbs. After two years, residents could vote to lift the cap through a local ballot initiative or referendum.
He said his ballot measure would give communities breathing room to address challenges such as growing school enrollment and heavy traffic. “Once you decide to limit growth, then you have more to say about the kind of growth you have,” he said.
In 2000, at the end of another economic expansion, almost 70% of Colorado voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have restricted development to voter-approved areas.
This time around, Hayes said he’s heartened that residents of Lakewood, a city in the Denver area, voted this summer to cap annual housing growth and require the City Council to approve large projects. “I think people are fed up,” he said.
Managing a growing population and new development has never been easy for state and local leaders. But recent national trends may be making the task more difficult.
The number of affordable housing units declined in most states between 1990 and 2017, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Nationwide, new housing construction isn’t keeping up with demand, and the units that are being built tend to cater to the high end of the market.
Meanwhile, since the 1980s the federal government has moved away from funding new public housing projects. Federal housing assistance doesn’t meet demand, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.
There’s not really a federal partnership worthy of the name,” said James Brooks, city solutions director at the National League of Cities, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
Cities have stepped up to build more low-income housing, Brooks said, but cobbling together enough money — including federal grants, tax credits and city bonds — to get projects off the ground can take years.