Less talk, more action on affordable-housing issue

If there is one word that sticks out for me from the recent Intercity Leadership Visit to Portland, Ore., that the Boulder Chamber and Downtown Boulder Inc. organized, it is this: “Crisis.”

The city of Portland has been a hotbed for economic activity and entrepreneurial business development in recent years, mirroring on a larger scale the character of economic vitality Boulder has enjoyed. Portland also mirrors many of the same challenges Boulder is experiencing during this period of significant business development in the guise of skyrocketing housing costs.

As they’ve recognized, the loss of affordable workforce housing threatens their community’s long-term economic sustainability as well as the character that makes Portland such an attractive and interesting place for businesses and entrepreneurs to locate.

Portland’s leaders haven’t devised some single silver-bullet solution to these housing woes. Nor is there one program that Portland initiated which stands out as the recipe for success that Boulder should follow. What is different, though, is the seeming earnestness with which Portland is tackling the issue.

In recent years, Portland’s leadership began referring to its housing challenge as a “crisis.” That is important.  When you are confronting a crisis, the time for talk is over and action on solutions becomes paramount.

For Portland, that meant a cut of 5 percent in other department budgets to fund their affordable-housing program. It also meant pursuing a slew of strategies for expanding the diversity of Portland’s housing stock, as no single solution will do the trick.  Forward progress is the name of the game.

Back in Boulder, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the loss of affordable workforce housing and for good reason: This year, the median home price surpassed $800,000 and the average price for homes sold in 2016 is around $722,000. At these market rates, housing in Boulder has become virtually unattainable to most working professionals.

We’ve had paid consultants tell us that we need to get serious if we sincerely want to tackle the challenge. And we’ve heard directly from local business leadership, as recently as this past month at our Boulder Economic Council’s annual Economic Summit, that the dearth of affordable housing is a threat to Boulder’s economy.

So what are we doing about it, beyond the ongoing admirable and creative efforts of city of Boulder Housing Division staff and their local nonprofit partners? Nothing fast.

City staff, consultants and local experts have proposed a number of new policy initiatives and programs that will, when taken together, significantly expand the diversity of Boulder’s housing stock. We spent the better part of a year vetting these alternatives through a citizen working group and community outreach back in 2014. With a road map for action in place, additional analysis and a prioritization study continue to this day. Hardly the model of urgent action in the face of our current challenges.

With a bias toward practical progress on housing diversity, rather than more analysis and studies, the Boulder Chamber has urged City Council and staff to immediately pursue the following example strategies:

Reduce requirements for site-specific parking, onsite open space and setbacks for affordable housing projects.

Establish a guaranteed and expedited planning and permitting process for affordable housing that assures developers of the standards they must meet.

Examine flexibility within existing commercial zones to allow for housing along with density incentives to promote a mix of housing options.

We believe pursuing these strategies, at no actual cost to the city, would incentivize developers to invest in affordable-housing opportunities that can address the needs of Boulder’s workforce.  Most critically, while not an exhaustive list, quick action on measures such as this will demonstrate the seriousness of purpose, akin to what we witnessed in Portland, in Boulder’s effort to address its workforce-housing challenge  — or is it, “crisis”?

John Tayer is president and chief executive of the Boulder Chamber.

If there is one word that sticks out for me from the recent Intercity Leadership Visit to Portland, Ore., that the Boulder Chamber and Downtown Boulder Inc. organized, it is this: “Crisis.”

The city of Portland has been a hotbed for economic activity and entrepreneurial business development in recent years, mirroring on a larger scale the character of economic vitality Boulder has enjoyed. Portland also mirrors many of the same challenges Boulder is experiencing during this period of significant business development in the guise of skyrocketing housing costs.

As they’ve recognized, the loss of affordable workforce housing threatens their community’s long-term economic sustainability as well as the character that makes Portland such an attractive and interesting place for businesses and entrepreneurs to locate.

Portland’s leaders haven’t devised some single silver-bullet solution to these housing woes. Nor is there one program that Portland initiated which stands out as the recipe for success that Boulder should follow. What is different, though, is the seeming earnestness with which Portland is tackling the issue.

In recent years, Portland’s leadership began referring to its housing challenge as a “crisis.” That is important.  When you are confronting a crisis, the time for talk is over and action on solutions becomes paramount.

For Portland, that meant a cut of 5 percent in other department budgets to fund their affordable-housing program. It also meant pursuing a slew of strategies for expanding the diversity of Portland’s housing stock, as…