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Our View: ‘Middle’ starter homes ‘lost’ in affordable housing debates

$200,000 to $250,000 range missed in strong opposition to SB23-213

We talked with Gov. Jared Polis over Zoom after the end of the legislative session and his big-swing attempt at affordable housing. Polis wore his disappointment, weariness and resolve over SB23-213 that was pared, gutted, amended, then left to die on the calendar without the Senate discussing changes made by the House.

“One piece lost was middle housing,” he said. “Starter homes at $200,000 or $250,000.”

Homes that first-time homebuyers could afford with appropriate financing.

Polis is right. This “middle” price point was drowned out in the loud, strong opposition to the 105-page bill that seemed a threat to single-family zoning in much of the state, forcing cities and towns to allow duplexes, triplexes and other multifamily housing with up to six units on residential zoned land. The measure would also have barred prohibitions on accessory dwelling units, which could have been built just about anywhere.

On April 14, we editorialized that SB23-213 was a one-size-fits-all approach to a problem with multiple challenges. We pushed for more community input, more local control. We appreciated the intention of the bill – to address affordable housing with real, dramatic changes. Building dense, cluster housing near public transit to reduce emissions was an excellent idea. Another good one was prohibiting minimum-sized footprints for homes.

But the bill was more sweeping than targeted and a non-starter with La Plata County, Bayfield and Ignacio firmly opposed. Durango didn’t take a position.

Last week, when a mention that SB23-213 was kaput at a meeting of local government employees, business owners and others interested in economic development, most in attendance clapped, hooted and hollered. Their enthusiasm surprised us.

Ding-dong, the witch is dead!

Still, we applaud Polis’ gutsy move to take serious actions now. He tried to do something. It was just too much, too soon. Impressions of state overreach didn’t help.

Affordable housing could use some rebranding. From deed-restricted units to properties with no strings that families might actually purchase, affordable housing means different things to different residents. We can’t miss the irony – affordable housing can be terribly unaffordable. Especially in a city like Durango, no matter that units are priced to meet income levels at 30%, 50% or 80% of the area median income. Numbers don’t always match the reality of costs.

Affordable housing can stoke NIMBY fear, too. Remember infamous public housing projects, such as the 16-story Cabrini-Green in Chicago that fell to neglect? This is one reason the bill was not backed by the Rocky Mountain NAACP, which also advocates for climate action. Portia Prescott, the group’s president, said the measure didn’t recognize the fraught history African Americans have with density in the U.S., and being shut out of homeownership programs.

The way forward on a renewed housing bill may be an emphasis on middle for-sale housing, such as duplexes and townhomes for young families to build equity. Developments could include more playgrounds and prioritize sites near schools. What would incentive young families if backyards are out of price range and not feasible?

Land-use reform could bring more affordable housing. Needs and wants just have to match unique communities in the Southwest. And middle housing could pave the way.