YIMBY in Colorado? 6 big points from Gov. Jared Polis’ interview on housing

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in his office at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, during an interview with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Gov. Jared Polis’ four years in office have coincided with continued price increases for Colorado homes and rent hikes for apartments. It’s a result, in part, of a large influx of new residents and a limited supply of new housing.

Looking ahead to the second term he hopes to win, Polis wants to find ways to push cities to allow denser housing near transit lines in particular, outlining a pro-development approach that he says offers a sustainable answer to the state’s housing crisis.

In a recent interview with CPR News, Polis signaled that he wants the state to take stronger action to reshape development. It’s a stance that mirrors the growing momentum of the “YIMBY,” or Yes In My Backyard” movement, which has led states like California to reform zoning codes and other regulations on development.

Much of his focus in his second term would be “to really solve — rather than just pretend to solve, or throw money at, or talk around the edges of — the housing affordability crisis in the state,” he said.

Here are some of the biggest points that Polis made in his recent interview. (A longer version of this article was also published on Friday, which also outlined the ideas presented by Republican challenger Heidi Ganahl.)

Polis says the state needs dense development near transit.

The governor said that Colorado’s main housing problem is a lack of construction. And the state should respond, he said, by making it easier to build dense and sustainable projects — think apartments, condos and townhomes.

“In many ways, the lack of housing is a completely contrived problem. It's a problem of our own making. And we can unleash and remove barriers to significantly more opportunities for housing,” Polis said.

Throughout the interview, he referred to local restrictions as one of the greatest obstacles to development: “The bigger issue is hesitancy on (reforming) zoning on local authorities.”

He specifically wants to see new construction focused in cities, not far-flung exurbs.

“We need more housing density in many parts of our state. We need it along transit corridors and close to where jobs are,” he said. “What we don't need is more exurban sprawl, which would worsen our water issues for the entire state, put more traffic on the roads and decrease our air quality.”

Polis sees a greater role for state government in housing.

Most development across the U.S. is controlled by local governments — cities, towns and counties. Polis wants the state to exert more influence over those decisions.

“What we find more and more is the decisions of one community impact not only themselves,” Polis said. He said that because housing supply is an issue that affects whole regions, it’s not a matter of local control. Local control refers to the idea that cities control what happens within their borders.

Local control, he argued, “is about the idea you control your own destiny. It's not (that) you control the destiny of your neighbors.” He repeatedly referred to the need for an “inter-jurisdictional” strategy.

But it’s not clear just how far Polis wants to go.

In some states, most notably California, lawmakers have taken significant steps to expand their power to regulate development, generally with an eye to encouraging density. For example, a law created last year changed zoning rules across California, allowing up to four housing units on one single-family zoned property.

Polis hasn’t outlined any mandates like that. Instead, he’s started with financial incentives. Laws this year offer federal housing funds to cities that embrace density near transit. 

He described the incentives as an “initial piece” to ensure “that it wasn't just money shoved into a failing system that fails to deliver housing close to where jobs are, but it (instead) was aligned with incentives for local government to do the right things with regard to an inter-jurisdictional approach to housing,” he continued.

Requiring cities to accept new types of development would be a harder sell, though. Earlier this year, an attempt to ban local governments from enacting new growth caps failed at the legislature despite some bipartisan support.

Asked if he would support mandates on housing development, Polis reiterated that the state should “be at the table” with local governments when it comes to development.

Subsidized affordable housing is a secondary focus for Polis.

Colorado is preparing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money on its subsidized affordable housing program. Polis said that program is important, since it provides housing at prices below the market rate.

But he argued that government spending alone wouldn’t solve the problem, especially since subsidized housing usually takes the form of rental units. Polis is more interested in building homes that people can buy.

“We’d really like to build the (subsidized) affordable housing program. It’s helpful to provide a place to live. But it should never hold us back from the kind of reforms we need to build more housing that's affordable … for people to be able to purchase and own and benefit from the appreciation,” he said.

How are people reacting?

For the YIMBY crowd, Polis’ latest comments are an encouraging sign.

“I think he very clearly said, ‘We’ve been investing a lot, we’ve been believing in our local governments that they've been embracing these changes … but we have to move faster,” said Peter LiFari, executive director of Maiker Housing Partners, the housing authority for Adams County.

“We have to make judicious and transparent decisions, and we have to stick to them, and we can’t continue to constrain the production of housing based of fear instead of logic,” LiFari said.

But the supply-side, or YIMBY, argument is also divisive, even in liberal cities like Denver. Building more housing may lead to lower prices in the long run, but development can also change the face of neighborhoods through gentrification, as shops and smaller homes are replaced with new development that aims at a wealthier, often whiter, population. The effects can be especially painful for renters who find themselves priced out of their homes as new residents move in.

“It’s this trickle-down economic theory of housing,” said Nola Miguel, director of the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice, a nonprofit representing neighborhoods in Denver that have historically been ignored or steamrolled by the city.

She supports the idea of reducing regulations on nonprofit and affordable housing developers, but is skeptical of any approach that centers on for-profit development.

“Instead of incentivizing private development … what about supporting public development, supporting the folks that are mission-driven to not gain profit but to build housing that works for people?”

The idea of state intervention is also sure to upset some local leaders. Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said the state should support cities, not overrule them.

“If the (legislature) and the governor wanted to be most helpful, they would trust those that know their community, and free up some funding to get things built,” he said.

What is Heidi Ganahl’s plan?

Like Polis, Ganahl wants government to get out of the way of development. She said she’s interested in seeing more dense, European-style housing.

She told CPR News she would start conversations with experts and local leaders about how to achieve that, but she said she would still leave much of the decision-making in the hands of cities and towns.

“We also have to honor this idea that it's really up to the local municipalities to manage their growth, but I can partner with them as a governor, and incentivize them,” she said.

She didn’t outline any specific incentives the state should offer, and she rejected Polis’ use of federal dollars to shape local policy.

“You know me, I'm more about letting the free markets do their thing and using other kinds of incentives. We've got a lot of problems we've gotta solve in Colorado that we need our government funds for, so I think there's other ways to do it,” she said.

Ganahl said she would look to cut other regulations that make it more expensive to build new housing, though she didn’t specify what changes she would make. She also pointed to ideas like building out rural broadband to help revive development in smaller towns and cities, which may be more affordable.