Affordable-housing package advances, but with a major concession

Gov. Jared Polis rolls out his affordable-housing bill at a news conference at the Capitol on March 22, 2023

Gov. Jared Polis’ package of bills seeking to ease Colorado’s affordable-housing crisis by ramping up new construction has passed its first key tests — albeit with the loss of a provision that could have allowed building of as many as six units on any single-family-home plot in a Colorado city.

Following a 12-hour public hearing on April 6 and another three-hour hearing Tuesday in which 19 amendments were passed, the Senate Local Government and Housing Committee advanced Senate Bill 213 on a Democratic-led party-line vote. The proposal is a wide-ranging effort that would require cities to allow construction of multifamily housing along key and transit-oriented corridors, give property owners a right to build accessory dwelling units, require a statewide housing needs assessment and bar local density-limiting policies like bans on modular housing.

That vote came 13 days after the House Transportation, Local Government and Housing Committee approved House Bill 1255, which would bar existing and future growth limits in which cities cap the annual number of land-use applications taken or building permits issued. While growth limits exist only in a handful of cities — including Boulder, Golden and Lakewood — they drive up property prices within their boundaries and affect living costs in surrounding cities as well, proponents argue.

A session focused on affordable housing

Legislators are considering a bevy of other bills, including business-opposed efforts to allow local governments to implement rent-control measures and get a right of first refusal on purchasing apartment complexes for sale in their areas that may see decisive debates this week. But SB 213 and HB 1255 are Polis’ centerpiece proposals to try to boost housing stock within the state and ensure Colorado does not lose its economic competitiveness by being unable to offer the attainable housing needed by the workers of companies that consider expanding here.

“We have labor leaders and we have business leaders, and we have environmental advocates and housing advocates … all saying, ‘Let’s take action now to have more housing,’” the Democratic governor said at a March 22 news conference when he rolled out the bills. “We’re at a real fork in the road in Colorado.”

SB 213, while lauded by many of the groups Polis listed, came under attack from city-government leaders across the state and the Colorado Municipal League arguing that it took away their right to local control and threatening to bury the bill in lawsuits if it passed. They and other opponents — particularly state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican who is a former Weld County commissioner — say it eliminates a community’s ability to plan its growth around its unique needs and respond to the voices of its residents.

A tweet from Colorado Municipal League Executive Director shows his frustration at Senate Bill 213 during its hearing on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, the Commerce City Democrat sponsoring the bill, made a major concession Tuesday by removing from the bill a section that would have allowed the owner of any property in urban areas that is zoned for single-family housing to build multiple structures ranging from a duplex to a six-plex on the property. The change, Moreno said, was an acknowledgement to large number of concerns about the allowance destroying the character of neighborhoods.

What’s in the bill

But the bill still allows multifamily housing as a right of land use along heavily trafficked urban corridors, as a way both to build units that are more likely to be low-cost and a way to encourage housing on transit lines that doesn’t require residents to own cars. It also permits anyone in substantially sized cities to build an accessory unit like a granny flat on their property, bans restrictions on group living and requires cities to draw up plans to boost affordable housing and to minimize displacement of residents where property values are rising.

“If you have a constrained supply, prices tend to rise, which I think is the situation we are facing in our state today,” Moreno said when asked why he felt SB 213 could slow the skyrocketing cost of housing.

Colorado Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno speaks at a March news conference announcing a package of housing-reform bills.

Municipal leaders complained, however, that the bill will do nothing to increase affordability while it is pre-empting the rights of local governments and eliminating the ability of residents to take concerns about growth plans to local elected officials. Cherry Hills Village Mayor Katy Brown said she doesn’t believe current residents would put up triplexes or quadplexes, but she expects removal of local obstacles to such construction will create a rush by outside developers to buy up parcels in cities like hers and put up higher-density, above-market-rate housing.

Whither construction defects?

Both opponents and business leaders who back the aims of SB 213 criticized the bill for doing nothing to reform construction-defects law and lessen the omnipresent threat of builders being sued, which has driven insurance rates so high that condos are just 4.3% of new housing stock. Developer Buz Koelbel said in a committee hearing that condo owners should have to prove damage before initiating a claim and that state law should allow builders to determine costs of fixes, but no amendments were brought forth to address construction defects in the bill.

“Unfortunately, this bill does little to make housing affordable … This bill does nothing but impose mandates and pre-empt local control,” Kirkmeyer said. “And this bill is setting us up for lawsuits. That’s not what we’re trying to get to.”

Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who had expressed significant concerns with SB 213 after its first hearing, pointed to several changes as the reason he ended up backing the bill and helping to pass it by a 4-3 margin in committee on Tuesday. Those included amendments to lessen density requirements on rural resort job centers like the mountain towns he represents, a provision to allow rejection of development if water resources in cities aren’t adequate and a clause that sunsets the law in 10 years unless the Legislature continues it.

“Essentially, it’s a housing-needs assessment, it’s ADUs in metro regions and it’s density in key corridors and transit-oriented communities,” Roberts said of the remaining requirements in SB 213. “There is good in this bill now as amended that will help Coloradans, and I don’t think we should gloss over that.”

SB 213 heads next to the Senate Appropriations Committee. HB 1255 could go up for full House debate as soon as this week.