Colorado considers using public land for affordable housing
DENVER — Police officer Andy Sandoval lives in one the most beautiful places in the world near Vail, Colorado, where world-famous ski resorts are nestled between Rocky Mountain peaks. His living situation for years, though, was far less dreamy.
Until last month, the 26-year-old, his wife and their two small children were squeezed into one bedroom in a three-bedroom house that held nine other tenants — the best they could afford because of bloated housing prices fueled in part by sky-high land costs.
“Seeing my kids who wanted to run around, and my kids who wanted to stay up and watch a movie, who just didn’t have the space to do a lot of things … was heartbreaking,” said Sandoval. “I feel like I was failing them.”
Sandoval and his family were able to move into a home of their own last month thanks to Habitat for Humanity, but their all-to-common plight was an impetus for Colorado lawmakers to wade into the housing crisis.
The legislature is considering a new proposal to free up vacant parcels of state-owned land that could be leased or sold at a discount for affordable housing projects. If passed, one project near Vail would build 80 units of affordable housing in the first phase, and potentially hundreds more.
The proposal is part of a snowballing trend kicked off locally by cities such as Boston, New York and San Francisco that has since been adopted by California lawmakers in 2019 and spawned requests to the federal government to open up land for residential development.
“The cost of land in Colorado is one of — if not the — highest barrier to building affordable housing,” said Democratic state Rep. Dylan Roberts, one of the bill’s sponsors. “By eliminating that barrier, we’re hopefully going to see projects happen that would have never happened before.”
The bill was the first of several housing affordability measures the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature is considering this year as they prioritize what has become a vital issue after the state’s median home price rose by 40% since the beginning of 2020, nearing $600,000, according to the rental platform Zillow.
“This is unaffordable if you are a teacher, nurse, restaurant manager, or city employee, the very workforce that help our Colorado communities thrive,” said Karen Kallenberg, executive director of Colorado’s Habitat for Humanity, in a committee hearing on the bill.
Colorado’s Habitat for Humanity chapter develops affordable dwellings across the state, and Kallenberg noted land has become one of the organization’s largest expenses, rising by as much as 286% in recent years.
The bill would authorize state officials to identify underused, state-owned land and organize deals with local municipalities, nonprofits and private companies to build affordable housing.
Colorado owns about 55 vacant parcels, including about a dozen in and around Denver, that could potentially be used for affordable housing. The bill proposes allocating $13 million to help kick-start projects.
It’s yet to be determined which parcels would work for affordable housing, and how many units could be built on the ones that do. But, if passed, the legislation would launch one project in a place called Dowds Junction at the confluence of highways near Vail, west of Denver.
In Vail alone, the median home prices has grown by $600,000 to over $1.7 million since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Zillow. Prices rose as wealthy newcomers — freed from their office desks with pandemic, work-from-home protocols — descended on resort towns in a buying frenzy. It’s left local police officers and teachers scrambling to find an affordable abode.
“We simply cannot succeed without homes for our vital workforce,” said George Ruther, Vail’s housing director.
Single mother Tanya Solis, 33, a school social worker who had long dreamed of owning her own home, bounced around apartments in the region, fleeing steep rent hikes with each lease renewal during her daughter’s first years.
“I would just melt down thinking, ‘Would I ever be able to afford something?'” said Solis. “Will I ever be able to offer something stable to my daughter?”
Like Sandoval, Solis recently was able to buy a home in the area through Habitat for Humanity. For Solis, being accepted for a home “was just all these great emotions,” she said. “Having programs like them available is just so huge … (giving) individuals like us opportunities to be homeowners.”
The parcel in Dowds Junction is currently used by the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the proposal would shift trailers on the property to another lot to make way for 80 units of affordable housing.
In Colorado’s statehouse, the bill has garnered Democratic and tentative GOP support, passing through committee last month in a 6-1 vote after supportive testimony from interest groups including the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.
Republican Sen. Rod Pelton, the lone committee member to oppose the proposal, said he’s concerned about the state potentially outcompeting adjacent landowners. Pelton caveated his vote by saying, “No, for now.”
“We just need to be mindful of private enterprise, that we don’t harm that process,” he said.
The idea to utilize public land has made its way all the up to the federal government, where, in Colorado alone, the Bureau of Land Management owns 8.3 million acres of public land, according to the agency.
A spokesperson for Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Jared Polis said the land some federal agencies own, oftentimes in town centers, have “great promise for housing opportunities.” The Western Governors’ Association, which Polis chairs, urged Congress to make the transfer of land to states, cities and counties easier as a solution to housing shortages.
Forfeiting federal land to states, however, has garnered more opposition.
In a statement, Kate Groetzinger, a spokesperson for the left-leaning Center for Western Priorities, said: “It’s important to remember that people choose to live in the West because of our abundant public lands… now is the time to invest in making our public lands more accessible, not sell them off.”
Groetzinger said the environmental organization doesn’t have a stance on Colorado’s proposal, which does not include federal land.
Roberts said his bill is not the sole solution to the housing crisis, but argued it would be a significant step in tackling numerous challenges facing Colorado.
“(Housing) is an economic issue because it’s hurting small businesses. It’s an educational issue because we can’t hire teachers in Colorado. It’s a health care issue because we can’t hire healthcare workers,” said Roberts. “If we can make a big dent in it, we are going to see it resonate through a lot of other challenges.”