Boulder Daily Camera – On Friday, activists and city planning wonks self-identifying as “YIMBY” — Yes In My Backyard — descended upon Boulder from around the country and as far away as Australia for the first organized conference of the young but burgeoning movement.
“If a neighborhood character depends on excluding people, maybe that’s not a very progressive stance to take,” said the Berkeley, Calif., futurist and conference keynote Alex Steffen, characterizing the essential YIMBY argument. “Trying to freeze a neighborhood’s character in amber in the context of a dramatic housing shortage — it’s a regressive policy stance.”
While the YIMBYs gabbed and strategized, the neophyte activist group known, as of two days ago, as Legalize Boulder was out with clipboards trying to convince passersby of Steffen’s thesis. They’re hoping some 4,600 people will sign each of their two ballot petitions: one to overturn the city’s occupancy limit and another to eliminate city laws that give housing preference to traditional, nuclear families.
Legalize Boulder has no budget and its leaders acknowledge the petitions are relative long-shots to reach the November ballot. But should they fall short this time around, they’ll return next year.
Finding solutions to Boulder’s housing crisis, petitioner Fiona Pigott told the Camera last week, is “not an issue that’s going to go away.
“It’s just going to become more pressing as Boulder gets more expensive,” she added.
Frat house alert
Recognizing that pressure, and the fact that many, across age groups, prefer to live with “found family” and not relatives, the City Council is mulling a new ordinance that could give licenses to up to 20 new co-operative housing units every year.
On May 17, the council took several hours of public testimony on the proposal from about 80 people, highly charged in either direction. And on Tuesday, the council will attempt to reach a re-draft that expands co-op options in the city without erasing that ineffable “neighborhood character” many believe would be undermined in quiet, residential areas.
In any event, the ordinance wouldn’t be adopted until later this year, so Tuesday’s session will serve as a tuning. But those who’ve spoken out against the proposal believe the council will find a way to pass it, and are now focusing on adjusting some of the language not yet fit for primetime.
“I think most the people I know would be arguing to shape this in such a way that you have a good co-op ordinance rather than one that has all sorts of unintended consequences,” said Allyn Feinberg, a member of the Liveable Boulder steering committee. “Because there’s enough wrong with it now that people who live in different neighborhoods should really wonder about what’s coming their way.”
As it’s written, the ordinance does not include a basic definition of co-ops, which has prompted some to worry that licenses will go out to sites that way exceed Boulder’s occupancy limit but aren’t necessarily interested in the kind of communal living that true co-ops enable.
City staff also described last month a fairly informal certification protocol, in which co-ops would have to merely satisfy a short check-list to maintain licensure. Council members did not appear sold on that mechanism’s potential to discern co-ops from otherwise crowded homes.
“If we’re not careful,” said Ken Farmer, a Martin Acres resident, “these are just going to become frat houses or party houses. There’s nothing that’s forcing them to be a real co-op.”
Mayor Suzanne Jones, who will be absent from Tuesday’s meeting, wrote in an email that she hopes to see an addition to the ordinance that prevents imposter co-ops. She also voiced support for a potential strategy raised by Councilman Sam Weaver in May, in which the required amount of square footage per resident would depend on a co-op’s zoning.
Co-ops in lower-density, single-family neighborhoods, for example, would be subject to the highest requirements.
“I think a two- or three-tiered system could make sense,” Jones wrote, “and would start by exploring 300 square foot/person limit in low-density neighborhoods and 200 square feet/person in other zoning categories, but would want more discussion on what the exact numbers should be.”
The public has offered a series of other changes to the current proposal. Language is needed to ensure co-ops are spread around the city, they’ve said, and not clumped together so as to burden any particular neighborhood much more than another. They’ve taken issue with the idea of grandfathering existing illegal co-ops into the city without thoroughly vetting them first, and are concerned about the stresses co-ops might place on parking.
‘Iterative’ drafting process
On Tuesday, the question many will ask is not whether Boulder will pass an ordinance to establish more co-ops, but rather whether the city will take the time to get it right.
“It appears to me that they’ve been moving very, very fast on a topic that really warrants careful deliberation,” Farmer said. “They look like they’re in a hurry to do something, but once we get this ordinance on the books, it’s not going to be easy to fix if this goes sideways.”
The mayor has said repeatedly that the drafting process should be an “iterative” one, and Councilman Bob Yates, who also will be absent on Tuesday, has called for “more thorough community engagement” ahead of an approval.
But if the ordinance, in whatever form, indeed passes weeks or months from now, it’ll be a nod to the growing belief in choice as a crucial housing tool, indicated by the birth of Legalize Boulder and the YIMBY campaign.
“If people feel like they’d prefer to live with a roommate, or five roommates, or in a found or chosen family, and if they want to share a space as single people, I really think we should be encouraging that, not fighting it,” said Steffen, the YIMBY keynote.
“Because it’s one of our only ways to make housing affordable for people when there’s just not enough of it being built.”