The Boulder City Council will appoint three new members to the city's Planning Board, which oversees housing development projects. Credit: John Herrick

During the last five years, David Ensign, the outgoing chair of Boulder’s Planning Board, said the city has made progress toward meeting its goal of building or preserving affordable housing units.

Just look at a map of Boulder, Ensign said — affordable homes are located all across the city. 

“They’re not shunted off into one part of Boulder,” he told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “We’ve got affordable housing developments all over. It is a pretty good success story.” 

He’s hopeful Boulder can meet its affordable housing goal of setting aside 15% of its housing stock for low-, moderate- and middle-income residents by 2035. 

It’s about halfway there, according to city data, having designated about 4,000 homes as affordable. 

Most of these homes are rentals for low-income residents who earn up to 60% the area median income. (The median income for a household in Boulder is $75,000, according to the U.S. Census.) Hardly any progress has been made toward achieving the city’s goal for reserving homes for middle-income residents earning 80-120% the area median income. 

The city’s middle-income housing strategy calls for creating “1,000 deed restricted permanently affordable” homes for middle-income residents by 2030. Just 111 have been designated as such. That number has barely budged since 2016, when the city established the goal. 

“That’s something that’s going to continue to be a conversation. And it’s also something that spans the political spectrum,” he said. “Most everybody in the public is pretty supportive of trying to figure out how to address the missing middle.” 

Middle-income goal: agreement, but challenges

The city’s Planning Board is often at the center of debates over housing development, density and growth. The seven-member, quasi-judicial board has veto power over whether certain projects are built.

Ensign, a retired engineer who wrote for the Daily Camera’s Editorial Advisory Board and served on the board for Out Boulder County, joined the Planning Board in 2017. 

David Ensign, departing chair of the Boulder Planning Board

Since then, Ensign has become familiar with the tensions around housing in Boulder. 

He was appointed to the board when one of his colleagues, John Gerstle, was not reappointed by the City Council, an uncommon move that generated controversy over the council’s influence over the board. Meanwhile, another one of his colleagues was actively opposing a project he supported that was proposed by a local nonprofit. The organization, TGTHR, which helps young adults aging out of foster care obtain affordable housing, later completed the 40-unit apartment in the Whittier neighborhood.

Most recently, Ensign was in the minority when he voted to support the annexation of CU South, a site in South Boulder that the city wants to use to build a flood mitigation project and housing for CU Boulder students and faculty. Voters will likely decide whether the project moves forward, again, in November.  

Despite tensions, one issue all members of the Planning Board agree on is the need to create more housing for middle-income residents, Ensign said. 

One challenge, he noted, is figuring out how to subsidize homeownership for people who are relatively financially stable. 

“If we were to subsidize or give mortgage assistance, it’s a little harder to justify public money being spent towards people who aren’t truly in need,” Ensign said. 

City officials are planning to implement a middle-income downpayment assistance program, which voters approved in 2019, under which the city issues loans to homebuyers. Homes purchased under the program would be capped in terms of home value appreciation.

“If you think ‘missing middle,’ you think of creating a pathway for someone to buy a home at a modest amount and then realize a profit,” he said. “But if you put on price controls, it artificially reduces the amount of equity you can build in your home.” 

Using zoning — rather than subsidies — to encourage more multifamily housing won’t entirely solve the challenge, either, according to Ensign. 

“Our pricing pressures are so high that when you do that, you’re still gonna get pretty high-end stuff,” he said. “If developers see that they’re going to be able to rent to people who work for Google, they’re more incentivized to make high-end units.” 

Annexing new properties into the city is one way to relieve some pressure, he said. It also gives the city a larger range of possibilities to encourage affordable outcomes outside of zoning. He cited the example of the 2015 city purchase of a former hospital site at Alpine and Balsam, where the city plans to build new affordable housing units.  

“If the city owns the property, then you really have a lot of leverage, because you can partner with developers and make sure that you call pretty much all the shots because you own the land,” he said. 

Staffing constraints dampen progress

Ensign said some of this work around middle-income housing was put on hold when Jacob Lindsey, Boulder’s former city planner, left for a job planning residential development in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. 

More broadly, he said he has seen a lot of city staff turnover during his time on the board. 

“One of my signature contributions to the planning board is to stick up for staff,” he said. “Let’s not make it so tough on them that they actually feel underappreciated, because the community already is pretty tough on the staff.” 

Staffing shortages have dampened progress on addressing the city’s housing challenges. Ensign cited an effort to update the city’s zoning rules. Such changes could allow businesses to be located in residential neighborhoods. 

“I actually formed a subcommittee to take that on. But here we are, four years later, and it hasn’t been completed even though we got all this community input and all these ideas on the table,” he said. “It’s kind of sitting there waiting for enough staff time to finish it up with an ordinance.” 

The work ahead: growth that isn’t ‘cataclysmically fast’ 

Ensign said if he could wave a magic wand to create more homes in Boulder, he would seek to change residential zoning to allow for duplexes in single-family home neighborhoods and triplexes in others. He would also allow more accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, to be permitted across the city, he said. 

Of course, he said, this is a controversial perspective. 

“People get very nervous about it because they have these ideas about it affecting their property values, or bringing in unwanted traffic or things that they don’t want to see,” he said. “But my feeling is it could be done in ways that aren’t cataclysmically fast.” 

He said he understands not everyone is trying to be exclusionary by opposing urban density. 

“But I wish people would continue to think about what it really means to not be exclusionary. If someone builds an ADU next door, are you just going to get really angry because there’s going to be one more car? Or can you just find a way to look positively upon that because it’s going to provide a housing opportunity for somebody near you? We have to try to get people to be a little bit more welcoming in general,” he said. 

The three open seats on the Planning Board were among the most sought after during the most recent round of openings for city boards and commissions, drawing 11 applications, including two from CU Boulder students. The application process closed on Feb. 21 and the new members will be appointed by the Boulder City Council this month.

Ensign said he’s tired after his time on the board, but recommended that people serve. He said the city’s boards and commissions are windows into the community. 

“I think that boards and commissions provide an opportunity for residents of our community to really dig in and understand things,” he said. “You realize it’s not just my perception and my interest here, there’s a whole spectrum of interests that are involved in how we move this community forward.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Ensign was on the board of TGTHR, a nonprofit that was proposing a housing project for young adults when he served on the planning board. He was not on the TGTHR board, but did support its housing project. The story was also edited to indicate the board seats seven people, not six.

Clarification: A previous version of this story implied that former Planning Board chair John Gerstle was removed from his position by the Boulder City Council. He was not reappointed by the council after a partial term.

John Herrick

I report on housing, climate, health and local government for the Boulder Reporting Lab. I previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. I’m interested in stories about people, power and fairness.