Guest column | State housing bill is important for addressing climate change
Colorado Energy Office executive director
Housing policy is climate policy. This is more than a slogan. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in our state, and energy use in buildings is one of the top five. And our current system — which makes it really hard to add housing in cities and forces new housing construction out to the suburban fringe, is creating ever more pollution, as people are forced to “drive till they qualify.”
Land use reform is the key to solving this puzzle. The research and policy organization RMI concluded in a recent study that “land use reforms can reduce vehicle miles traveled by up to 13 percent, building energy use by up to 16 percent, and local greenhouse gas emissions by up to 14 percent,” .
That is one reason why the state is pursuing Senate Bill 213, the “More Housing Now” bill. SB 213 focuses largely on expanding people’s rights within cities, including legalizing backyard cottages, duplexes through fourplexes in residential zones, apartments and condominiums along transit lines, shared housing with roommates, and manufactured and modular housing.
While the primary focus is to expand housing supply to address the crisis in housing affordability and access in Colorado, this bill is also one of the most important climate bills the legislature has ever considered. That is because the effects aren’t just to create more housing — but to enable this housing in cities near where people work, shop and go to school — especially near public transit. The state worked with economic consultants to analyze the impacts of the policies in SB 213 and found that virtually every new house enabled will be in areas where people drive less than the average, and about two thirds will be within walking distance of public transit.
The bill also explicitly focuses on creating opportunities for housing types that are both less expensive and use much less energy than detached single units. It would vastly expand the opportunity for backyard cottages, would triple the ability to build duplexes, would increase access to triplexes and fourplexes by a factor of 10, and would increase the ability to build apartments and condos by 35%. These are all housing types that are substantially lower cost to own or rent — and use far less energy and water. For example, a typical multifamily home uses 63% to 86% less water according to data from Denver and Aurora water users analyzed for the Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue, and up to 70% less energy than an average single unit home according to data for Colorado from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
One of the big benefits of enabling more housing in our cities is reducing the pressure to pave over farmland and wildlife habitat to produce far-flung housing. The traffic reduction and pollution reduction benefits are even bigger than they seem, because the new housing being built in cities is eliminating the extra-long commutes that result from development at the edge of our metro areas.
This isn’t a problem that can be solved by any one city acting alone. In order to make change at a large enough scale to really make a difference to housing prices, or to the climate challenge we face, we need action across all the fast growing regions of our state. Our current system frequently results in many individual local decisions that make it easier to build new housing on farmland and open space, rather than close to jobs and transit. This bill can help us achieve our goals, and ensure we can grow sustainably in the future.
Will Toor is the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office.
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