Myth-busting on the Housing Proposal

Hansen Wendlandt,  Peak to Peak Human Services, Chair of the housing sub-committee. Boulder County Housing Authority has proposed an affordable housing development in Nederland. Many of you have questions and concerns, which is great! Any sort of public project should have active and passionate conversations. However, as tends to happen in controversies, many facts are getting left behind.



The Peak to Peak Human Services task force has been trying to encourage adequate and attainable housing in the area, so on behalf of the P2P Human Services housing sub-committee, I would like to offer some myth-busting. Hopefully, this will help all of us measure the proposal on its merits, not on misinformation that keeps leaking around.



First, does Nederland need more housing? Absolutely! The town government commissioned a study in 2014, which quantified our housing shortage. Most of us know someone, or many someones, who has struggled to find appropriate housing. We’ve seen families forced down the mountain, which has led to lower school enrollment, year after year. Public servants like teachers and police can barely ever find a place to live in town, which causes far too much turnover. It is difficult for seniors to age in place when they can’t find a smaller home in the mountains, so many of our long-time elders have left us. And even when there are rentals available, they are rarely available or acceptable for lower income folks. Without new housing, this problem gets worse, and the town suffers. With appropriate new housing, on the other hand, we can help the schools thrive and maintain sustainability and diversity for a stronger town.



Second, is there already a long wait list for folks to move into these homes? Absolutely not. One of the most pervasive myths I have heard in meetings and conversations, and seen repeated online ad nauseam, is the false idea that Boulder County already has some waiting list. Many Nederland residents are worried that BCHA will build this project and just send folks from all over the county to live there, as though it would never actually serve Nederland. None of that is remotely the case, whatsoever.



Far different from a ‘wait list’, BCHA does have something called an “interest list”, which is basically a newsletter of information, for anyone in their system who might be interested in housing openings. If you are interested in living in Longmont, you click the box ‘Longmont’. Interested in the mountains, click that box. Whenever an opening comes available in whatever place you noted interest, you’ll receive information about how to apply. Until this project would be much further along, there would be no information to share, no applications available, nor any way to get on an imaginary waiting list, neither for mountain residents nor folks from around the county.



Third, can we assure that mountain residents will be placed in the project, once those applications are available? Not legally, no. One of the main funding sources upon which projects like this tend to rely, from an agency called the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, requires developers to follow strict federal guidelines governing non-discrimination against any class of people. In some more diverse areas, such as the recent BCHA project in Louisville, a developer could prioritize local residents, without discriminating against anyone else, and thus fulfill the federal requirements for this source of funding.



However, the demographics in Nederland are such that prioritizing our locals could be viewed, by some lawyers and judges, as discriminating against any class of people who does not live here. So, if BCHA tried to guarantee that most of their units would go to locals, they would be at serious risk of lawsuit, and the project could collapse. If another developer wants to take the risk of guaranteeing a locals-only project, more power to them. But if they seek the same funding, with the same federal laws, they are at real risk of investors backing out, CHFA declining their application or annual renewal, and finding themselves in court.



Fourth, so, is there anything we can do to make sure this project actually does help mountain residents? Most certainly. BCHA has made it very clear that they are building this for mountain residents. They are involved at our deep request, to serve our community. They have asked the Human Services task force and anyone in the community to help spread the word and contact neighbors who could be helped by affordable housing. They have asked social service leaders to help local folks prepare paperwork precisely, before the application process begins, so that locals can be ready. They have offered to bring computers and staff to the Community Center on the day the application opens, so that everyone who is ready can submit right away. In short, BCHA is giving us all the tools legally possible to make sure that we can bring our most vulnerable neighbors to the front of the line. People from Boulder could apply, but this is a local-oriented project for sure.



Fifth, why does it have to be so big? Let’s start with how big the proposal is planned to be. Currently the Planning Commission has asked for a 30-unit complex, and BCHA is hoping for 34 units. In some of the online arguments, people have been bantering around strange myths about 78 or 200 people being squeezed together. This is totally false. In fact, whether 30 or 34 separate units are built, that would amount to around 45 bedrooms.



Now, that might still seem like a lot of people to some of you. But, by building to that scale, BCHA is able to offer a two-bedroom unit, at a monthly rent of about $850. Try finding that in Nederland! If, on the other hand, they only built a 20-unit project (about 27 bedrooms), the exact same two-bedroom apartment would cost $1400 per month. Because of some of the fixed costs associated with projects like this, almost no matter what their size, the value of a slightly larger development drives down the cost for clients, so that it can be a truly affordable project for people in need.



Sixth, but why does it have to be so tall, in a residential neighborhood? There a number of factors here. This building would, in fact, be taller than the buildings around it, although it would fit within Nederland’s height restrictions. Some state funding agencies expect projects to be most efficient, so, considering things like the ADA requirement for an elevator, they desire a third story. The property is across the street from the RTD, ideal for anyone who travels by bus. The development is within the city limits, which has been a priority on the Board of Trustees for the last many years of working on housing issues.



Some neighbors have been reasonably concerned about more traffic on 3rd Street, so BCHA is redesigning the entrance, so that all residents will enter and leave from Peak to Peak, with only emergency access from the north. Kids will not have to worry about cars any more than now. Other neighbors on 3rd street are reasonably concerned about their views. So, the project has been set to the far south of the property, 200 feet away from the closest house across the street, so that no one would be blocked by a looming shadow. Of course, this sort of project will change the look and feel of the immediate neighborhood, as does any major project. Yet, the architects have borrowed materials that fit perfectly for our community—in fact, they come directly from buildings like Snyder Garage, Salto, and the Pioneer Inn. To continue not building any affordable housing, and continue losing families, could change the look and feel of the whole town in much more substantial, negative ways.



Seventh, what is the environmental impact? Government projects have long lists of regulations to follow, and Boulder County is adamant about respecting the environment. In this case, the stream will be absolutely protected. No part of the plan encroaches on the flood plain, and in fact gives quite a buffer. Engineers will be studying soon what the best method will be to divert the groundwater. There are no conservation easements or scenic byway issues. There are no elk migration routes to consider. Even our local foxes will be just fine, and perhaps safer without the encouragement to cross the highway.



Eighth, how would this project affect the town’s infrastructure? Some complaint has been made about the fact that BCHA is exempt from certain taxes, while their residents will be an added burden to town water, fire, etc. Far from a special case, government tax breaks for government-sponsored housing is the standard practice across the country, because having affordable housing—rather than keeping lower income folks in substandard housing, which negatively affects every other measure of health, public health, and public budget—is so much more valuable. Others have complained that the town government may offer a sliver of their own land, between the official lot and the roads, the implication being that something is fishy about that partnership. But localities are always working with developers and businesses in creative ways to encourage projects that help their towns. Without this normal setback easement, the project would simply not fit as an affordable development.



Ninth, what else could be done for affordable housing? This project is far from the only work being done or proposed. The Planning Commission and Board of Trustees have been working on various codes and zoning, to allow more flexible private development; however, as we have seen consistently, in Nederland, Boulder Country, and across the globe, neighbors tend to dislike higher density developments in any way. Our officials are also quite aware of the possibility of accessory dwelling or mother-in-law units, although in much of our town, the septic systems make that nearly impossible.



Certainly private developers should be encouraged to build, whether that would be normal houses, apartments, tiny-home villages, or any other creative idea; sadly, many of those proposals have not been approved. For BCHA, they have looked at every other sizable, buildable, and affordable lot in town, and determined that this is the best option for right now. Annexation from outside of town is another option; however when the P2P Human Services joined nearly every other organization in Nederland to speak in favor of another great project—and we still support Kayla wholeheartedly—there was loud opposition there as well.



The housing sub-committee wants good housing projects and policy, in all the ways that are useful for Nederland and our neighborhood. Yet, we as a community are rather stuck, not simply with the sort of nimby-ism that exists with nearly every affordable housing project in the country; but we have a BANANA situation: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. In response, we choose strongly to support this project, and in doing so, to correct the misinformation about it.



So, tenth, what’s the process moving forward? Please ask questions. Go to the informational meetings. Write to BCHA. Talk to your neighbors. If you care about your neighbors who could benefit from affordable housing, listen to their advocates, and be suspicious about who is denigrating this proposal and why. Do your own research and make your own decision. Finally, watch for news of when the Planning Commission takes up this agenda item. If they approve it, the proposal goes to the Board of Trustees. Come to those meetings and make your voice heard. But please leave the myths at home.