A state law passed last year opened the door for cities and towns in Colorado to require developers to contribute to affordable housing and combat the state’s housing crisis. After researching, drafting, gathering feedback and tweaking a policy over the course of more than two years, Denver was the first community to walk through that door.
The city’s long-in-the-works affordable housing mandate is now law after the Denver City Council voted to adopt a trio of bills codifying the new requirements on Monday. All three measures passed on votes of 10-1.
“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is now,” Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, one of the policy’s chief supporters on the council, said, quoting one of her favorite sayings.
This policy will help bring economic diversity to more portions of the city, Sandoval said. She only wished the requirements were in place when her northwest Denver district was undergoing a major redevelopment transformation over the last decade.
“Until today, 90% of by-right development in this city did not build any affordable homes on-site,” said Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who served alongside Sandoval on the policy’s advisory committee.
She celebrated the creation of a market-based tool that will not require government subsidies to get income-restricted units built.
Starting in July, developers building apartment or condo projects of 10 or more units in Denver will have to set between 8% and 15% of those homes aside as income-restricted affordable housing or pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees in lieu of construction. The units will have to be affordable to people making between 60% and 90% of the area median income depending on the part of the city where they are built and how many units are set aside.
Meanwhile, linkage fees that are already charged on most kinds of commercial and residential development in the city will rise much more rapidly over the next four years under the policy. The fees on some types of development will more than quadruple. Those fees feed the city’s affordable housing fund that can be used for a variety of affordable housing projects.
The policy faced ample criticism during the public hearing that proceeded the final votes. Fifty-five people signed up to speak as part of the meeting that stretched past 11 p.m.
Supporters included affordable housing developers and nonprofit organizations focused on public health. Opponents included representatives of the development community that argued the policy would cause some projects to be scrapped due to added expenses or drive up rents on market-rate apartments to offset those cost. Representatives of the city’s unhoused community and people from low-income neighborhoods also decried the policy. They believe it doesn’t go far enough to help those most in need.
“We are expected to be OK with this, that maybe, just maybe, someday funding will trickle down for poor and houseless people,” said Terese Howard,c of Denver Homeless Out Loud and the Housekeys Action Network Denver. “No thank you. We do not accept this.”
Supporters pointed out that apartments set aside to be affordable for people making 60% to 80% of the area median income (that’s between $56,280 and $75,040 per year for a family of two, according to the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority) will be accessible to people who make far less money with the help of Section 8 housing choice vouchers.
Mary Coddington represented a coalition of affordable housing developers at Monday’s hearing, By compelling market-rate developers to contribute housing for people over 60% AMI levels, the policy will free up affordable housing builders to focus on reaching people with deeper needs, she said.
Of the three bills that passed Monday, one updated the city’s zoning code, the second updated the municipal code and the third specifically addressed the neighborhood immediately around the 38th and Blake rail station in north Denver. The area had been the site of a pilot program that offered market-rate developers the option to build taller buildings in exchange for including affordable housing in their projects.
That bill repealed the special zoning around the station to better conform with the broader policy but it also rezoned many properties in the area with higher base heights, an echo of what the original zoning overlay allowed. Developers across the city will have access to incentives including greater building heights and lower parking requirements if they exceed the minimum affordability requirements set by the policy. In the 38th and Blake area, developers could go as high as 12 stories if they include additional affordable housing.
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose district includes the station area, opposed the 38th and Blake bill going back to the committee level. The area, she says, does not have the infrastructure to safely support the amount of population a major increase in development density would bring. On Monday, she proposed an amendment that would have capped the base heights for all properties in the 38th and Blake zone at five stories. That amendment failed.
CdeBaca also proposed an amendment that would have made accessory dwelling units — secondary housing structures build on single-family lots sometimes known as granny flats — subject to linkage fees if they a bigger than 400 square feet. CdeBaca argued that if additions on small homes in her northeast Denver neighborhood are going to be subject to linkage fees under the policy if they are over 400 square feet, so too should accessory dwelling units that can make properties much more valuable when they are put up for sale. That amendment generated some support on the council but ultimately also failed.
Councilmembers Jolon Clarkc and Paul Kashmann were absent Monday. CdeBaca was the lone no vote on all three bills.
“This is smoke and mirrors and we all deserve more than developer crumbs,” she said.
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