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Denver’s Housing Plan Advances Despite Equity Concerns

The city’s Planning Board voted unanimously to forward the Expanding Housing Affordability policy after changes were made to improve infrastructure impacts. But some believe the changes were also politically motivated.

(TNS) — Denver’s plan to increase the number of affordable apartments and condos built in the city cleared a hurdle this week, but also faced scrutiny over its mechanism for rewarding developers with decreased parking requirements and whether the policy is equitable.

The Denver Planning Board voted 8-0 on Wednesday to forward the “Expanding Housing Affordability” policy to the City Council and recommend that the council adopt it.

The policy, made possible by a change in state law last year, would require developers of most new condo or apartment projects of at least 10 units to set aside 8 percent to 15 percent of that housing for people making less than the area median income or face steep fees. The policy would also greatly increase the fees charged on all other types of development that feed other housing efforts through the city’s affordable housing fund.

After approving the policy itself, a majority of the board also voted to forward another recommendation on to the City Council. They want council members to look into amending the policy to expand the parts of town in which developers who build more affordable housing than required can earn the right to do away with providing on-site parking for their projects.

Parking exemptions in “transit-rich areas” across the city were part of the policy’s incentive option when it was first put out for public comment in February. Before appearing on the Planning Board agenda this week, the policy was amended to make that an option only if a project was within a quarter of a mile of a rail stop. All projects that meet the affordable housing requirements remain eligible for smaller reductions in the number of parking spaces they have to provide on-site, but the full exemption is now much more limited.

City staff members said the change was made to better match the policy’s impacts with existing city infrastructure. But it was clear in Wednesday’s meeting that the change also has a political motivation, potentially giving the policy a better chance at winning the approval by a majority of City Council members later this spring.

“I don’t understand what the harm is in leaving the reduced parking requirement in the greater area,” Planning Board member and former councilwoman Mary Beth Susman said during Wednesday’s debate.

Board member Fred Glick argued that making parking exemptions more widely available would make the policy a better fit with approved city plans, one of the criteria for the Planning Board approving it. He pointed to the Blueprint Denver plan that includes a recommendation to encourage more people to get out of their cars and walk, bike or take transit through efficient land use and infrastructure improvements.

Glick advocated for making the expansion of the parking exemption a condition of the board approval, but that amendment failed.

Several people who spoke as part of the board’s virtual hearing urged members not to recommend the policy until it could be further debated and refined.

One concern city planners heard repeatedly earlier this year that was raised at Wednesday’s meeting is that a policy that only covers projects of 10 or more units will not bring any affordable housing to the wide swath of the city that is not zoned for such dense development. Instead, it will concentrate the affordable units in neighborhoods already under intense development pressure unless the city changes its zoning code to open up more neighborhoods for higher-density housing.

Ean Tafoya of the Colorado Latino Forum and Nola Miguelc of the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice both served on the advisory committee that helped city staff craft the policy proposal. But both spoke against approving the policy as written Wednesday.

Tafoya’s and Miguel’s concerns about the policy include that its affordability requirements don’t go deep enough to be attainable to people living in neighborhoods vulnerable to economic displacement like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, and that there isn’t a strong mechanism to compel developers to build multi-bedroom units that could house families.

“We need to deeply consider potential unintended consequences or harms if we don’t have equity considerations,” Miguel said.

City planner Analiese Hockc noted during the meeting that right now there is nothing preventing developers from building market-rate apartment projects in vulnerable neighborhoods with no contribution to affordable housing. The city is also committed to investing fees collected from projects in those neighborhoods back into those areas should the policy become law.

“It’s really designed to get developers to build affordable units on site,” Hock said of the proposal. “That results in mixed-income housing throughout the city of Denver.”

Conspicuously missing from Wednesday’s discussion were representatives from the development industry, some of whom have publicly criticized the policy as an added burden that would only slow down development and pass costs on to market-rate renters and homebuyers.

With the Planning Board approval secured, the policy is expected to go before the City Council’s land use committee later this month. A public hearing before the entire council is expected sometime in June, officials say.

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