Denver affordable housing mandate: Proposal avoids major overhaul

A trio of measures that would create a more demanding, mandatory affordable housing policy across Denver is finally headed for a public hearing before the City Council after a committee approved the package on Tuesday morning.

The policy mandates all new housing projects of 10 or more units include at least 8% affordable housing units or face steep fees. It also greatly increases fees on most other kinds of development in the city to fund other affordable housing efforts. It is expected to produce a modest but steady supply of affordable housing in a city now considered among the least affordable in the nation.

Tuesday’s approval came after the committee approved two amendments to the package. The more impactful of those amendments would expand where developers can exchange building more affordable housing than is required in their projects for the option not to build any on-site parking. It’s an idea that, while supported by the Denver Planning Board, could be controversial when the entire council debates the policy in the weeks ahead.

Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval proposed the change. Under the version of the policy advanced by the planning board earlier this month, only projects within 1/4 mile of a rail stop in the city would be eligible for the exemption from providing parking. Sandoval’s amendment would expand that to any project within 1/4 of a mile of any high- or medium-capacity transit corridor in the city where the city has invested in better transportation infrastructure.

Sandoval mentioned Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard and Broadway, all busy thoroughfares the city has eyed for enhanced bus systems, as examples of streets that might trigger exemptions. Saving developers money by entirely getting rid of parking requirements is a mechanism to getting more mileage out of the affordable housing mandate, in Sandoval’s view.

“As good as this ordinance is, it’s 10 years too late,” Sandoval said. “So we need to offer any incentive that we can and paying to store a vehicle instead of paying to house people is something I am an advocate for …”

Councilwoman Amanda Sawyerc is not on the land use committee but was among several council members who sat in on Tuesday’s hearing. She opposed the parking amendment, a disagreement now poised to carry over to when the policy package goes before the entire council.  Even people who take mass transit to work often own vehicles for other reasons, Sawyer said. Parking not provided on-site will mean people parking on streets in established neighborhoods.

“I 100% understand the intent behind this and I think it’s great, I just disagree,” Sawyer said. “Because I do I hear from my residents all the time that you can’t get to the mountains without a car.”

The second amendment the committee approved Tuesday was described as a technical fix by Councilwoman Robin Kniech. Kniech also is not on the committee but has been a driving force behind the affordable housing mandate.

The amendment, which was unanimously approved, dictates that all development projects in the city’s pipeline at the time the affordable housing policy takes effect will still pay linkage fees that rise with inflation. Linkage fees on most types of development are used to feed the city’s affordable housing fund. The policy would do away with the inflation-based model in favor of a much steeper graduated increase to the linkage fees schedule. Grandfathered projects won’t be subject to that schedule but won’t see their fees frozen either under the amendment.

The committee voted down nine amendments forwarded by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca after she held meetings with community groups that are concerned about potential negative side effects of the policy package.

CdeBaca’s raft of amendments included a pair of changes that would have set an even higher standard of affordability in neighborhoods the city already classifies as vulnerable to gentrification and displacement and are receiving $10 million or more in public investment. Those neighborhoods were Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and East Colfax, CdeBaca said.

Set up as a two-year pilot program, the amendments would have dictated a minimum of 10% of all units in large residential developments be made affordable for people making no more than 60% of the area median income in those neighborhoods. By 2022 standards, that would mean residents could be making no more than $56,280 a year for a two-person household.

The pilot would revisit the effect of the requirements in two years and keep track of metrics including changes in the racial makeup of the neighborhoods, changes in area median income and number of homes sold. The intent of the measure, CdeBaca explained, was to ensure that public investment in those neighborhoods does not lead to more speculation because land prices are lower there today that in many other parts of the city.

“We believe that there needs to be a different cost added to our areas of high vulnerability,” CdeBaca said.

Councilwoman Jamie Torres supported the pilot program amendments, but the other five members of the committee rejected them.

CdeBaca voted against forwarding all three measures that cumulatively make up the housing policy to the council as a whole.

“Our development process is broken, and we have not been building for our best future. This new policy, unfortunately, continues this trend,” CdeBaca said after the hearing. “The entire policy was built to cater to developers’ bottom line and ensure we do not slow rampant unchecked development in Denver.”

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