Most Boulder residents agree the city has a problem when it comes to housing. Home values are soaring. Rent is rising. Most city workers live outside city limits. In the last decade, homeownership rates have dropped slightly, and rates among Black and Latino homeowners are disproportionately low.
But when it comes to Boulder’s longstanding housing challenge, few agree on a solution.
Jacob Lindsey, the city’s outgoing director of Planning and Development Services, said Boulder should start with a study.
“I would suggest that Boulder commission a very in-depth analysis of its housing markets because a lot of our housing discourse right now is based on conjecture,” Lindsey told the Boulder Reporting Lab.
In Charleston, South Carolina, where Lindsey previously worked as the city’s director of planning, preservation and sustainability, the city commissioned a study that involved collecting data on its housing stock, resident income and commuting patterns. This data was used to determine the number of housing units needed to offset rising prices, Lindsey said, and ultimately shaped the city’s housing plan.
“We could not have done that without a serious dive into the data. I think it’s very helpful to commission an analysis in order to set good housing policy,” he said. “I think in the future Boulder needs to do that kind of deep dive into its housing data, which it has not done yet.”
Lindsey, who was hired about a year ago, took over a department following a round of city-wide budget cuts due to Covid-19. His department lost a fifth of its employees, according to city budget documents. A lot of his work for the city, he said, was maintaining workflow, avoiding delays in services and “managing through a staffing crisis.” Last week, Lindsey announced he’s leaving the city on Dec. 3 for a job in the private sector.
During his stint in Boulder, Lindsey was involved in some of its most contentious housing debates. He helped finalize an agreement with the University of Colorado to annex CU South, a plan community organizers sought to block through a failed ballot measure. And earlier this month, he took questions from members of the Boulder City Council about the city’s occupancy limits, which cap how many unrelated people can live together.
A measure to increase the city’s occupancy limits failed this past election. What effect the measure would have had on the city’s housing market is unclear. Lindsey said he did not know how many homes it would have affected, either.
“There has not been sweeping analysis around the issue of occupancy,” he said. “That is work that should be performed in the future.”
The city’s occupancy rules are one of several prominent policies that limit who lives where in Boulder. The city is surrounded by open space, which has long added to its appeal for many, but has restricted development. In the 1970s, the city was also among the first in the interior West to place limits on growth.
“The city of Boulder is a national leader in the quality of life because of the many regulations that have been passed over the years,” Lindsey said. But, he added, “those regulations have never been collectively revisited. And today, many layers of regulation exist that are conflicting, complex and time-consuming. Boulder needs to revisit its regulatory landscape to simplify and streamline those regulations while maintaining quality of life.”
Zoning regulations known as planned unit developments, or PUDs, are one example of a regulation Lindsey would like to see simplified. Lindsey said these regulations include property setbacks, maximum building heights, roof pitches, paint colors, heights of fences and even restrictions on birdhouses. More than 2,000 PUDs affect more than 8,000 properties in the city of Boulder, Lindsey said. He also said some PUDs are maintained on poorly printed paper records.
Lindsey said these regulations make it difficult to modify homes and build new ones. One of the planning department's priorities over the next year is to map them out and, in some cases, eliminate, rezone or simplify them.
He also said Boulder should carry out its existing plans for new housing developments. The CU South annexation plan includes 1,100 new housing units for graduate students and faculty. The city is also accepting comments on the East Boulder Subcommunity Plan, which includes building more than 4,000 new housing units.
“At the end of the day, the capacity exists for Boulder to significantly add to our housing stock, including a significant addition of affordable housing,” he said. “Boulder needs to recommit to building out those plans.”
Separately, Lindsey said the city can increase density by allowing more housing cooperatives and accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. He said Boulder should lift occupancy limits unless doing so creates a safety risk for residents.
“We do not want people dying in basements during a flood and we do not want people unable to get out of their house during a fire. Those are critical issues,” he said.
Lindsey said he’s optimistic Boulder will become a “national leader on equity, housing and environmental issues.” He also believes Boulder will always be pricey.
“More people want and need to live in Boulder than the city can ever accommodate either through new construction or by more effectively using its current housing stock,” he said. “And I sincerely believe that this place will always remain desirable — and expensive — just like every other great city in America.”
Correction: We updated this story on Nov. 30, 2021 with additional data on homeownership rates in Boulder County. A previous version of this story said homeownership rates have risen. But in the last decade, those rates have dropped from 63.9% to 62.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.