Affordable Housing Crisis
The current Board of County Commissioners has it right in that affordable housing should be a top priority. They also have it wrong in that they believe government is the solution. While government can point to solutions and can propose regulations, the best, cheapest, and quickest way to affordable housing is to challenge and support the private sector’s endeavors to figure it out. While government can point to the pathway forward, it’s the private sector that owns the construction companies, and the land; they also know the architects and lenders who can most efficiently get the job done.
The government’s role is to define needs, inspire builders, specify parameters, give incentives, and convince the public that the money they spend is a worthwhile use of their taxes. Micromanaging all the private entities involved in a complicated building project is counterproductive. It also dampens the designers’ creativity when they are burdened with too many demands.
If Boulder Valley wants to be known as a leader in this field, they should encourage local government to take a step backward and let the private sector lead. Allow them the space to freely make the proposals and figure out the logistics. Later, the Board of Commissioners can review the proposals and with input from the public make wise decisions.
One of the mournful cries we frequently hear in the city of Boulder concerns the lack of land on which to build. That fact, as well as the limitations on building “up” due to height limits and the Blue Line, has led to the belief that we have to ignore the height restrictions and build “up.” However, that’s a fallacious argument. We're not the first ones in the world to have this problem. Even though building up is limited, building down isn't.
While I was living in Seoul, Korea, a city with limited space, I was surrounded by skyscrapers, but I also visited buildings that had multiple stories going down. In the center of the buildings were large courtyards, filled with delightful plantings and sculptures. These sunny courtyards were easily accessed by people on the lowest levels. There was no obstacle to walking out their front door to “grassy, common front yards.” Their living spaces definitely did not feel like basements. Shopping areas were also below ground level with direct walking access for residents.
Just above the topmost level of apartments were wonderful courtyards as well. On the middle levels, there were additional open areas where the occupants could recreate in the open-air. Delightful small playgrounds, places to walk dogs, and meeting areas were scattered around these areas.
Boulder County’s stubbornness in only wanting to build up is short-sighted and outdated. Go down, Boulder, there’s a lot of space for housing there and our amazing local architects would have a lot of fun designing equally amazing living spaces!
Another aspect of affordable housing is how to assist those in the middle income bracket. One issue in this area is out-of-state investors who have discovered Boulder is a good place to invest. There’s a common pattern here. Before a home is even listed, word gets out to investors, many from out-of-state. First time buyers, many who have been looking to buy a home for a long time, hear about the house several days later. They put in a bid only to discover the house was sold to an investor with a cash offer for thousands more than the asking price. The investor then puts the house up for higher rent.
This scenario not only shuts out first-time buyers, but puts upward pressure on the cost of housing. There is nothing illegal here, but it is a factor in the upward pressure on the cost of housing for locals who live and work in our county. It seems like an intractable problem, but it may be worth brainstorming possibilities about what we can do to mitigate this process without being heavy-handed and trampling on investor rights. Maybe, we could give assistance to local buyers, like we do for senior citizens, such as reduced property taxes for a short time or doing fire mitigation or weed pulling. We definitely should not violate the rights of individuals to buy a home of their choice. I don’t see this difficult issue as an insurmountable cliff, but more of an obstacle course.
Transportation in Boulder County
Other factors related to affordable housing revolve around our inadequate transportation model. Our transportation model in Boulder Valley is sorely inadequate. Many of our daily workers commute from more abundant and inexpensive locations outside the city to their jobs within Boulder. Whether they bike, walk, ride the bus, or drive, moving about this county is a hassle. It doesn’t have to be this way.
There is ample room for creative solutions to this problem. I mention only a few here: shuttles subsidized by developers, employers encouraged to foster remote working and staggered workdays and hours, leased vans for van pooling underwritten by the county, getting Uber and Lyft into “carpooling.” Current transportation goals revolve around RTD and mostly larger buses. RTD has a track record on being ineffective. The county commissioners should rely less on RTD and more on themselves to come up with creative approaches that are more effective.
Budget Oversight and Evaluation
In 2020, the commissioners’ budget was close to $440 million. It’s a challenge to oversee that much money and make sure it is spent wisely and not wasted. For starters, I would look at the banking fees for that $440 million. Those fees add up to a big chunk of the budget and could be trimmed without affecting any of the current programs.
For big entities like Boulder County, waste is assumed to be a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be that way. While the auditors can attest to where the money goes, they can’t attest that it’s wisely spent. The commissioners need to pay better attention to the budget details.
Antiquated Building Codes
When I talk to people around this county, this subject garners the most groans—100% to be exact. Everyone has a horror story about trying to remodel, fix an apartment, build a house or deal with zoning. Responses revolve around long wait times and redundant laws that have no redeeming qualities. I’m sure the people in this department work hard.
My daughter is a planner in another part of Colorado so I know how hard this department works. But clearly, something is not right here in Boulder. Solutions to this problem are a priority for me.
Mental Health in Boulder County
Early in my career, I was part of the teaching staff working with emotionally disabled kids at the Boulder County Mental Health Center. The big take-away was that “nipping problems in the bud is the way to go.”
For the next 37 years, dealing with such issues was a major part of my life. Small children who “act out, “ middle schoolers who flounder, high schoolers who attempt suicide, homeless adults who lack the tools to redeem their potential, and residents of all ages battling depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and other mental illnesses are not guilty of messing up their lives. The county can do much better than our current status quo.
Climate Change and Sustainability
"Climate" shouldn't be divisive, but our American tendency is to blame, not solve. The quickest results come from acting locally. The recent plunge in emissions was due not to tying the hands of big companies and filing expensive, drawn-out lawsuits, but by citizens turning into homebodies. Their demand controls supply.
The CoolClimate Network uses Zip Codes and lifestyles to make charts showing how to cut emissions. Individuals voluntarily choose what they want to do. We could promote neighborhoods joining together to out-compete others. Maybe, the commissioners could offer a nifty prize.
Living a sustainable lifestyle does not mean self-sacrifice. Think about this analogy. Brushing your teeth takes time, but if you don’t you’ll suffer in the end. Similarly, if we don’t “reduce, reuse, recycle,” we will suffer the consequences down the road. I’d give Boulder a “B” grade for their effort, but we’re underachieving and easily could earn an “A” if the commissioners put their minds to it.”
Saving energy and living sustainably is part of our heritage. Our grandparents knew “to waste not is to want not.” This is perfect for 2020.
Land and Water Stewardship
If we are not conscientious stewards of our land and water, we have no future. Big power brokers, both governmental and private, are the ones now making the decisions that will decide that future. However, all of Boulder County’s citizens need to be aware of what is going on here. If not, control of the land and water which belongs to the people could easily be stolen from them.
The commissioners must bring the public into this discussion.
This category is the traditional job of the commissioners. If there is a road problem, the buck stops here. While there will never be enough money to fix every new pothole the day after it appears or to get the snow off every road the day after a storm, the commissioners must keep the phone to the road department on speed dial.
I’ve spoken to a handful of workers who have confided that better ways of doing things are out there.
Public Health and COVID-19
Boulder Public Health’s model for addressing COVID-19 issues should have been less top-down with more input from below, for example, touching base with all local hospitals and providers early on as they had good suggestions for coordination which could have led to a better county-wide response.
Gathering input from all providers would have led to fewer shut downs of hospital units, more efficient testing locations, and less pain and anguish for those whose needs were ignored because they were deemed non-emergencies. Being forbidden to serve these so-called non-emergencies caused some medical providers to be driven out-of-business.
County residents need more science research on transmission of the virus, it’s causes, and up-to date medical information. Instead, residents get mostly case rates. While that information is interesting, more answers as to the why, what, where, and how the virus is spreading in the county would be helpful to us. Instead, residents are forced to get their information from other, often unreliable sources.
County Commissioner Seats
Five commissioners would make our county less autocratic and more democratic.
Currently, the ideology of BOCC is largely limited to the thinking of Boulder proper. Since more people live there, their votes determine who’s elected; their view dominates decisions made for the entire county.
Longmont, Erie, Nederland, Lyons, Niwot, Louisville, Lafayette, Allenspark, Jamestown and Ward are at their mercy. These smaller communities pay county taxes, but are not well represented by the 3 commissioners, who only need the votes from the dominant city to be elected.
Three people can’t make wise decisions for a huge county of farms, mountains, plains, and manufacturers. With 5 commissioners, each community would have a better chance of being heard.
Leading with Social Equity
By promoting equity in a way that brings us together rather than divides us, all the other areas become much easier to solve. I have worked as an equity trainer and conducted restorative justice sessions. Through it all, I have learned that yelling at each other only makes equity harder to achieve.
Moratorium on Oil & Gas Extraction
Prompt: The moratorium on oil and gas extraction expires on Dec. 31, 2020. The
sitting Commissioners will have to vote on whether to extend it or not.
Should the moratorium should be extended?
If the goal is to reduce emissions, a moratorium would have no measurable impact because the recently passed Senate Bill 181 takes care of that. Senate Bill 181 directs drillers to monitor emissions during drilling and for 6 months afterward. Technology has greatly improved in the drilling and monitoring of oil and gas extraction.
Drillers say this monitoring does not greatly impact their operation so it’s a win-win for all parties: the local farmers who own the land and need the profits they get from oil extraction to stay in the farming business, the people who want cleaner air, climate mitigation, and lower prices on energy, and the oil companies who own the drilling
Continuing the moratorium will only result in extended and expensive litigation. It’s doubtful the moratorium is legal. Any moratorium would end up back in court and the county would lose the appeal. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Farmers are unappreciated. We assume that there will always be cheap food available. Americans pay a much smaller proportion of their income for food than other countries. It’s higher quality with more varied choices, too. We can’t take our local farmers for granted and must recognize that they need our support.
Growing up in a farming area has made me painfully aware of the fragility of farming. Because the land under their crops is in such demand, they could sell it off and earn more from the sale than from farming. If we don’t subsidize them, they would have to quit farming.
Currently, the county owns about 25,000 acres of agricultural land that is leased it to the farmers. The Parks and Open Space Agricultural Resources Division oversees the land, manages the leases, and tracks rent and crop production. I’ve participated in field trips offered by the county to see these farms. For me, it was a much of a natural high as looking at our mountain backdrop. In way, farming is like the natural wonders we preserve in national parks. To support our farmers, we must let them take the lead by keeping the commissioners informed as to what they need.