Amid push to pass land-use reform and rent control in Colorado, rural mountain officials played a decisive role |

Amid push to pass land-use reform and rent control in Colorado, rural mountain officials played a decisive role

Opposition from mountain towns and a rural state senator halted proposals to require denser housing and allow rent control in Colorado municipalities

Light filters through the dome of the Colorado State Capitol as the 2022 legislative session opened on Jan. 12, 2022, in Denver. Lawmakers are rushing to pass policies before the session ends on May 8.
David Zalubowski/AP

During a legislative session in which Colorado mountain area representatives called housing a top priority, two major proposals — one to mandate the development of more housing through land-use reform and another to allow rent control — were either gutted or failed. 

While state lawmakers succeeded in passing a slew of other housing-related bills, the resistance to the land use and rent control efforts, Senate Bill 23-213 and House Bill 23-1115, respectively, highlight the work by rural resort officials to blunt policies they deemed to be ill suited for their areas. 

Colorado Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who represents mountain communities including Summit County, cast decisive votes to reign in S.B. 23-213 and kill H.B. 23-1115. In an interview with the Summit Daily News, Roberts said he had to consider both bills’ “unintended consequences.”

‘Pros and cons’ of policy

S.B. 23-213 would have paved the way for higher-density housing in cities and towns across Colorado by banning municipalities from using zoning rules to limit such development. But it faced intense backlash across the state including in rural resort areas, where town councils even passed ordinances opposing the measure. 

Though a heavily amended land-use bill is still alive, its zoning proposals have been stripped out. The bill passed in the Colorado State Senate recently, and its first House of Representatives vote is scheduled for Tuesday, May 2.

Roberts was a key lawmaker who opposed mandated zoning measures for High Country resort areas, having championed an amendment to the bill while in the Senate Local Government and Housing Committee that removed its density requirements for mountain towns. It also gave those municipalities the option to choose from a menu of affordable housing strategies.

“The problem in our mountain towns is that it didn’t ensure that that development was for affordable housing,” Roberts said. “So I believe that it would have incentivized a lot of developments that would have been short-term rentals, luxury vacation homes — not the kind of housing we need.”

The bill’s remaining density requirements for Front Range communities were later removed through another Senate committee vote. House Democrats have proposed a last-ditch effort to revive some density requirements, mostly around transit corridors. But with just one week before the end of the 2023 legislative session, that effort — and the bill’s overall fate — remains uncertain.

H.B. 23-1115 would have rescinded a more than 40-year-old ban on Colorado municipalities from enacting their own rent control measures. Roberts ultimately joined three Republicans to vote down the measure during a committee hearing on April 25. 

“I think if a certain community were to impose rent control, it would disincentivize any nonprofit or private builder from having any interest in those communities,” Roberts told the Summit Daily.

While Roberts said he had concerns around blanketed development that lacked any guarantee of affordability, which he said is why he pushed to amend the land-use bill, he also said he does not want to stifle new housing development because of rent control. 

That philosophy, however, frustrated supporters of rent stabilization who argued that the latter would have given municipalities more local control — a key argument by local officials for why they opposed state-mandated land-use reform. 

But Roberts said “it’s important to consider the pros and cons of each individual policy,” adding, “should we give authority to all localities, or should we consider unintended consequences with a local decision?”

‘Inconsistent philosophies’

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said the arguments around local control, whether it be to support or oppose the land-use and rent control bills, reveal a “fundamental inconsistency.” 

“Everyone has had some inconsistent philosophies, and it is largely due to lack of data and knowing how these policies will or won’t work,” Pogue said. 

Still, while the rent control legislation would have given local governments an option rather than a mandate for such policies, “any time you are given a tool, there’s pressure to use that tool,” Pogue said. 

Pogue said her main concern with rent control centers around short-term rentals, which accounted for roughly one-third of the county’s housing supply, according to a March 2019 to March 2020 study. Pogue said any regulation on rent in the private sector could incentivize more people to seek housing through the short-term rental market, which she and other county officials have called an unsustainable landscape for the county’s workforce. 

Commissioners and town council members have introduced regulations on short-term rental licenses aimed at mitigating just that. It’s why, for Pogue, legislation like rent control may represent more of a “band-aid approach” than other policies. 

But some of that uncertainty could be alleviated through future research that may be powered, in part, by the land-use bill. 

While lawmakers gutted S.B. 23-213’s zoning reform and density requirements, they kept intact a provision that would mandate housing studies at both the state and local level. As it currently stands, the legislation would convene a committee of state officials to conduct a statewide assessment of housing needs by the end of 2024. At the same time, larger and more affluent municipalities would be called on to create “housing needs plans” to manage future growth. 

Similar studies are already used in some communities, such as unincorporated Summit County, where officials are in the midst of another housing needs assessment after conducting one in 2019. But a statewide approach will show a more holistic picture, Pogue said. 

“We need the data to know which counties, which municipalities are moving the needle and which aren’t,” she said. 

Another chance for zoning reform

Still, Pogue said she’s hopeful that a future legislature will take up zoning reform. While Pogue said local governments often understand their communities best, she also recognized that zoning restrictions on housing development can hamper supply. 

“What we’ve seen is that some of our more affluent communities that have had that ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality have used these strategies to that advantage,” Pogue said. “I don’t think there’s any way we solve the affordable housing crisis without solving our supply deficit.”

After bowing to resistance to the land-use bill, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said his vision to increase Colorado’s housing supply through zoning reform will likely be a longer-term effort akin to passing universal preschool. 

“We didn’t get universal preschool in my first year or my second year. It took us all four years,” Polis said in a recent interview with Colorado Public Radio. “So we’re committed on delivering on what I said, and one of the biggest things we face in our state is a housing crisis.”

Roberts said that while land-use and rent control have “taken up a lot of attention and the spotlight,” state lawmakers have still advanced meaningful housing policy this session. That includes efforts to expand property tax exemptions for affordable housing projects and to allow private-public partnerships for housing development on state owned land, two initiatives spearheaded by Roberts. 

And with legislation in 2021 and 2022 to establish grant programs to funnel millions of dollars to local governments for affordable housing, Roberts said the last three years represent the “most productive and transformational effort by the legislature in a very long time, if ever, on affordable housing in Colorado.”

Still, as a representative for “some of the highest cost communities in our state,” Roberts said this should be the beginning, not the end, of work to reduce housing costs. While he predicts zoning reform and land-use conversations to reemerge in a subsequent session, he’s hoping any proposals work to win “more collective buy-in from our local leaders.”

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