As ‘monster’ homes rise, how can Boulder stay affordable?
BOULDER, Colo. — Ellie Sciarra and her husband Wolf Reitz have lived in a 900-square-foot ranch house on Boulder’s Orchard Avenue for years.
Reitz owns Coyote Motors, an auto repair shop on North Broadway. Sciarra is a dancer and massage therapist with a studio in a small cottage next to her home.
Her neighbors all used to live in similar homes on large lots. Over the years, many people built additions, or even new homes. But in the last few years, the pace and scale of construction have rapidly increased, the Daily Camera reported.
Last year, a 1,200-square-foot ranch house at 1695 Orchard Ave., next door to Sciarra, sold for $650,000. The home was scraped, and in its place a 6,800-square-foot “modern farmhouse” is rising.
It’s listed at $2.695 million.
“Who is now going to afford that?” Sciarra asked. “Who is going to live there? And why does it have to be so big? I don’t get it.”
Down the block, three more large houses are under construction, and one block further east, two more small ranch houses are under contract, almost certain to meet a similar fate.
“It’s kind of intense,” said Anka Galkin, a kindergarten teacher who lives on Orchard. “It’s changing so quickly. It’s really changing the feel of the neighborhood.”
Six years after Boulder imposed new rules on house size to promote “compatible development” following a bruising political battle, some City Council members want to revisit the issue in a desperate bid to preserve some relative affordability in single-family homes.
During a recent discussion of the city’s middle-income housing strategy, Councilwoman Lisa Morzel pointed to the older, smaller ranch homes falling to the bulldozer throughout north Boulder, and Councilman Andrew Shoemaker said the ability to build much larger homes was driving up sales prices.
Mayor Suzanne Jones wondered whether limiting “monster” homes was on the table.
A consultant had just told the city council that Boulder’s best chance to retain some middle-income housing (a middle-income family of three earns between $68,000 and $134,000 a year) was to build more attached housing — duplexes and townhomes that are discouraged by the city’s code.
In surveys of people who work but don’t live in Boulder, very few said they would trade in a single-family home for an apartment, but about half said they would live in a townhome in order to stop driving into Boulder.
Townhomes, duplexes and triplexes retain their relative affordability more than single-family homes, and a major reason for that is that it’s hard to make them much larger, the consultant said.
City council members pivoted to wonder whether limiting the size of additions and new homes on already developed lots could rein in the increase in home prices.
‘They chose to be less restrictive’
Concern about very large new homes taking over historically modest, middle-class neighborhoods is not new in Boulder.
Deputy director of planning Susan Richstone recalled that the city was hearing complaints and surveyed residents leading up to the 2000 update to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan and found a deeply divided community.
Home size at that time was largely controlled by setbacks and height limits.
“Although the issue of affordability came up, it was much more about neighborhood character,” she said. “Affordability was there in the background, but that was not the driving issue.”
Though many new homes do not use the maximum floor-area ratio, Boulder has not conducted an analysis of home sizes before and after the regulations were adopted in 2009, and Richstone said the primary goal wasn’t so much to reduce house size as to limit the impact on neighbors.
A Daily Camera analysis of almost 400 building permits for new residential construction issued since 2010 found that the median size of new single-family detached homes built in the last five years was 4,400 square feet.
By comparison, Boulder’s overall median home size was 1,861 square feet in 2012, according to BBC Research and Consulting. And the median size nationwide of new homes built in 2014 was 2,453 square feet, according the U.S. Census.
Of 53 new homes built in Boulder since 2010 that were under 1,500 square feet, 39 of them were built as deed-restricted, permanently affordable homes. Two-thirds of new homes built in the last five years were 3,500 square feet or larger.
Of at least 107 new homes for which a demolition permit was also issued at that address to tear down an older home since 2010, 90 were 3,500 square feet or larger and 48 were 5,500 square feet or larger. The median size of homes built to replace teardowns was 5,151 square feet over the last five years.
During that same time period, the city also issued thousands of permits for additions and remodels, including 113 additions that were 1,500 square feet or more in their own right.
‘A luxury good’
Suzanne Lanyi Charles, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, has studied the teardown phenomenon and used to live in Boulder. She called the idea of limiting house size in conjunction with allowing accessory units “exciting.”
“A lot of places don’t allow accessory units because they’re afraid of density, but they are a great way to make post-war housing adaptable,” she said. “It allows the property owner to get the return on investment at the same time it creates workforce housing. It kills two birds with one stone. It still might change the character of neighborhoods in ways not everyone will like.”
Teardowns don’t cause home prices to go up, Charles said. Rather, they’re an effect of high land values. Boulder is a desirable place to live without a lot of space for new housing, and that puts pressure on home prices.
And while most of the concern about teardowns nationwide has focused on the aesthetics of “McMansions,” she said they can be considered a form of gentrification.
“That’s a loaded term, but through teardowns, you have enormous socioeconomic changes,” she said.
Whether limiting house size would reduce land values and shield older homes from purchase by speculators would depend on whether developers think they can make a profit. Developers generally use the “rule of three,” Charles said. That is, can they sell the new home for three times what they paid for the old one?
Limiting the size of homes might give some developers pause, particularly if they think high-end buyers won’t be interested in smaller houses. Or they might build nicer homes with more amenities and better design if they think there is a market.
“It depends on what people are willing to pay to live in Boulder,” she said. “Boulder is a luxury good.”
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