SB23-213: Members Weigh the Pros and Cons of the Land Use and Housing Bill

This year’s legislative session has produced one of the most contentious bills we have ever seen that affects the architecture profession in SB23-213: Land Use. While most everyone agrees that we have a shortfall across the state for housing units in general, and for affordable housing in particular, this bill takes a heavy-handed approach that’s caused a lot of resentment from local governments who enact zoning codes. Colorado is also considered a “home rule” state, which is shorthand for how our constitution expressly gives certain powers to the state but otherwise defers to cities and counties. The state legislature must justify its efforts as being true matters of statewide concern, and it’s not clear this bill has succeeded in doing that. We have also heard strong opinions from our members across the state in both support and opposition to the bill.

For members not already familiar, this bill, as introduced (an important caveat that will be explained below), would empower the state to override certain restrictions in local zoning codes for residential development to address our housing shortage. It is important to note that while this bill would be in effect statewide, many provisions will only apply to municipalities that meet certain population criteria, mostly in urban areas of the state. Lots that are zoned as single-family residential would be required to allow accessory dwelling units (this requirement is the most far-reaching). Certain residential lots would be required to allow low-density multifamily residential buildings. Areas near public transit would be required to allow higher density multifamily residential projects.

SB23-213 clocks in at a hefty 105 pages, and late in the evening on April 18th, 17 amendments were adopted that significantly scale back the scope of who is affected and what the bill can impose. AIA Colorado is still evaluating these changes, but we can share a general summary. Rural resort communities will no longer be subject to most of the bill’s requirements; instead, will be given recommendations by a new advisory committee. A new menu of housing affordability strategies will be prepared to give local governments more flexibility in enacting their own plans, subject to minimum requirements. The “middle” housing category of requiring development of 2- to 6-unit projects has been scaled back to 4 units, and more conditions created to reduce where these would be required.

Before we delve into member perspectives, it’s important to note that SB23-213 has only had its first committee hearing. The bill sponsors have publicly stated that more amendments are forthcoming and will be considered on the senate floor. If the bill passes in the senate, it still has to be approved first by a house committee and then via full house floor votes. Governor Polis supports this bill and is anticipated to sign it into law.

Nikolaus Remus, AIA, Advocacy Engagement Director, AIA Colorado

In Favor

I am a Colorado licensed and NCARB certified architect, an AIA member, a graduate of the ULI Real Estate Diversity Initiative Program (REDI) and I am on the Better Boulder Board of Directors. I have worked in Colorado since 1999. I have first hand experience with the land use codes and the permitting processes in many cities and towns across the state. In the last few years, I have become a regular at planning board and city council meetings when housing is on the agenda because I know that architects have expertise and a working knowledge of land use and building codes that the general public does not. I show up and testify because using my voice, my education, and experience might improve the access to housing for thousands of people. That makes the long hours and time spent worthwhile.

I view the passing of this bill as a critical moment in Colorado’s history. We are facing a housing crisis, as well as issues related to climate change and transportation. As they say, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. The scarcity of housing in our state is directly linked to our exclusionary zoning codes and the local control measures we have tried have not worked. The data shows us how many housing units we are lacking. The cost and scarcity of housing is a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution, with everyone working together to address it.

Rosie Fivian, AIA, Y Rosemary Fivian Architect Inc

In Opposition

Fundamentally, the assumptions regarding the cause and effect of affordability in our region are flawed. Increasing supply will not lower costs because local buyers will still compete with vacation home buyers and be outbid. There will never be enough supply in our geographically constrained areas to meet demand, and uncontrolled growth could severely impact the quality of life. Uncontrolled growth in the human body is called cancer, and we should consider this analogy.

Zoning restrictions are not the primary cause of real estate pricing; outside dollars and demand are driving up costs. However, zoning does an excellent job managing what is appropriate for our more fragile mountain environments and generally focuses on higher density in more walkable areas. Most mountain communities are long, narrow valleys, so planning where density should occur has a direct impact on transit costs and other factors of affordability, such as walking to services and daycare. Taking away local control and knowledge about how to build here is asinine, heavy-handed, and will ultimately do nothing to solve the problem. We need a solution that addresses the root cause of the economics (and it is not only supply). Financial support from the state to create a completely separate economy comprising a diverse offering of housing types, all deed-restricted, is needed. I do agree that these should never be segregated, but rather integrated throughout the community. However, high-density smaller units with no input on their location is not the answer.

Brian Sipes, AIA, Principal, LEED AP at Sipes Architects

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