Defeat of land-use reform proposal in Colorado reveals a far less controversial suggestion: a statewide housing study
Lawmakers ultimately could not muster the votes to pass Senate Bill 23-213, a controversial proposal to mandate more housing across the state. Some officials in Summit County say its failure hurt other, more popular goals.
Following weeks of turmoil and uncertainty around its passage, Senate Bill 23-213, a controversial land-use reform bill that was a top priority for Gov. Jared Polis, died on the final day of the 2023 legislative session.
After passing two starkly different versions of the bill, the Colorado State Senate and House of Representatives failed to hammer out a deal in the waning hours of the legislative calendar, which ended May 8.
By not passing any law, lawmakers sank immediate hopes of enacting a mandate to build denser housing in cities and towns across Colorado. But in the process, they also took down a far less controversial measure which sought to create a statewide assessment of housing needs.
For Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue, it represents a missed opportunity to combat the affordable housing crisis.
“I think the failure of 213, in any form, is really a disservice to the entire state,” Pogue said. “I’m disappointed. I’m very disappointed.”
A failed compromise
After gutting the bill’s density requirements, the Senate passed a version that would have charged state officials with conducting a statewide housing needs assessment by the end of 2024. Meanwhile, larger and more affluent municipalities would have created plans to manage future growth. The Senate version also would have banned occupancy limits in most communities.
But upon its arrival in the House, several Democrats pitched a last-ditch effort to revive some of the bill’s density requirements for areas along transit corridors, such as bus routes and rail lines. House Democrats argued this was the core of the bill’s original intention to increase housing supply and lower costs.
After passing in the House, a partially-restored land-use bill returned to the Senate, where lawmakers, some still opposed to the revisions, let the clock run out for the bill on the legislature’s final day.
While Pogue said she understands why the House “took a risk,” both chambers’ inability to reach consensus will hamper the state’s ability to find housing solutions, she said.
Amid a mostly unified body of mountain community officials who stood against the bill, Pogue saw more benefit than harm in the legislation — even in its most contentious aspect which would have effectively banned municipalities from limiting development of higher-density housing.
“We have so many people who are without housing in Summit County, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about housing it’s about how much state collaboration and partnership matters,” Pogue said.
The needs assessment, for example, would have created a holistic housing framework for the state to work from, something Pogue has championed.
“Unless we know, statewide, how many units we have, what the affordability of those units is and how many folks are missing housing, it’s very difficult to develop a plan to get us enough housing for the entire state,” Pogue said.
Opposition centered around density mandate
Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula said that while he was opposed to 213’s land-use and density requirements, he recognized there were “parts of that bill that were important for the state.”
Housing needs assessments, which are already used by local officials across Summit including in Breckenridge and the unincorporated county, provide important data for housing decisions, Mamula said.
“You can say, ‘Hey, look: these are the areas where we need low-income housing, these are the areas where we need middle-income housing,'” he said.
And those decisions are different for each community, a key reason why Mamula did not support a statewide land-use standard, which he had called a “one-size-fits-all approach.” Area median income levels, for example, are far higher in Colorado’s High Country compared with other parts of the state. That affects what kind of housing those municipalities need to build, Mamula said.
“I don’t think the state should tell any local community how to run their land-use planning,” Mamula said. “If people don’t like what the local electeds are doing, they get voted out of office, that’s how it works.”
Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat representing Eagle, Summit and other High Country counties, employed that argument as he sought a carve out for mountain resort communities during a Senate hearing on S.B. 213 last month.
While debating the bill in the Senate Local Government and Housing Committee, Roberts’ successfully pushed an amendment that removed density requirements for mountain towns. It replaced that provision with a menu of more than a dozen affordable housing strategies for those communities to choose from and implement such as regulating short-term rentals and creating deed-restricted units. Many of those strategies are currently in place in areas like Summit.
“I think it was a great way to hold them accountable to keep doing it,” Roberts said of the amendment in a previous interview with the Summit Daily News.
Roberts said a blanket mandate for development without requirements around affordability would have “incentivized a lot of developments that would have been short-term rentals, luxury vacation homes. Not the kind of housing we need.”
Still, Roberts said he was supportive of some density in Front Range communities, particularly near transit corridors. That component of the bill was gutted by a different Senate committee before moving to the House.
Roberts said he also supported a statewide housing needs assessment.
‘Carrot and less of a stick’
For Polis, loosening land-use restrictions — and spurring development — remains a cornerstone of his plan to make housing more affordable.
A study released last month by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that rigid zoning rules were helping to drive up rent in Colorado — though the study only looked at Front Range cities. Still, Polis has called land-use reform a “data-driven solution.”
“We need to change the way we do things,” Polis told the Summit Daily in a previous interview. “It only gets worse if we don’t change our course.”
In a statement from the governor’s office, spokesperson Melissa Dworkin said Polis is “deeply disappointed that politics and special interests continue to delay delivering real results for aging Colorado seniors who want to downsize, young families who want to live close to their work and the communities where they grew up, and businesses struggling with workplace shortages because of artificially high housing costs.”
With Polis suggesting he and other state lawmakers will revisit land-use reform in a subsequent session, officials said the conversation needs to be different to avoid a repeat of S.B. 213’s failure.
“Maybe it’s more of a carrot and less of a stick approach next time,” Mamula said, adding that the state could focus on incentives, rather than mandates, for local municipalities’ housing goals.
He also said a needs assessment should happen before any major statewide policy is rolled out, adding, “One of the flaws at the state level was not doing that first.”
Pogue said there needs to be more immediate discussion with stakeholders at the beginning of the legislative session. S.B. 213 was introduced near the end of March, more than halfway through this year’s session, much to the ire of its opponents.
Pogue also wants to see more “recognition of local governments, areas that are trying to move the needle” and a focus on those which are not.
But density also cannot be a taboo subject, Pogue said, adding she was thankful to Polis for kickstarting a statewide conversation around the issue.
“Strategies that are related to density have major impacts on housing outcomes,” she said. “If anything comes out of this conversation, I would like to believe that across Colorado, local governments recognize how important this conversation is.”
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