Colorado lawmakers begin drafting land-use bill to address housing crisis

Lawmakers have begun drafting a bill that will reform Colorado’s land-use landscape and promote development and density in transit areas, a top policy goal for Gov. Jared Polis in his and other leaders’ effort to address the state’s housing crisis.

As it stands, the draft turns on a handful of key elements that would centralize zoning decisions that have long been made by local governments. Those elements include a statewide policy of allowing more dense development near transit corridors, easing the construction of smaller units on existing lots and removing some parking requirements, said Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and the lawmaker set to sponsor the bill when it’s introduced in the coming weeks.

The proposal — which Moreno said may be split into multiple bills — would make it easier for property owners to build accessory-dwelling units on their property, which have typically required prior approval on a case-by-case basis. That “wouldn’t mean that local jurisdictions don’t have the ability to have influence in what they look like.” Moreno said. They just “wouldn’t necessarily” be able to ban them outright.

Legislators are also considering a statewide housing needs assessment, which would identify housing deficiencies and set targets to address them. That review would also help guide future state housing policy, Moreno said, including any future changes to land-use law.

In totality, the plans Moreno described represent a first leap into a reform effort that will likely stretch beyond this year. The benefits will not be immediate: Buildings don’t sprout up overnight, and building more carriage houses in Denver won’t solve the housing crisis. That’s why other lawmakers — primarily those in the House — have advocated for more immediate, pro-tenant policies, like allowing for rent control and establishing various eviction protections.

“It took decades for us to get in such dire straits that we find ourselves in today,” said Peter LiFari, the CEO of the Adams County housing authority Maiker Housing Partners and a proponent of land-use reform. “It’s going to take some time for us to be able to bring on the units that are income-aligned.”

Re-evaluating Colorado’s land-use policy — who gets to say what gets built where — has been a top policy goal of Polis, some lawmakers and a broad coalition of Colorado nonprofits. Proponents argue that creating blanket, statewide zoning policies will increase density, expedite development, promote the use of public transport and, ultimately, lower the cost of housing.

Any statewide approach to zoning will be seen as an encroachment on local control, and the Colorado Municipal League has already signaled its opposition. But Moreno said the current crisis — Colorado’s housing stock was short by about 175,000 units in 2019, according to one estimate — requires a different approach.

“At the end of the day, this has to be a state and local partnership if it’s going to work,” he said.

Details of the plan have not previously been released, and lawmakers and various interest groups have joked about the lack of clarity into what’s set to be one of the major legislative issues this year. Rep. Javier Mabrey, a housing-minded Denver Democrat, has referred to the proposal as “Schrodinger’s land-use bill.”

The plan as laid out by Moreno represents a shift in zoning policy here. But it’s short of the seismic changes undertaken in other cities and states. Minneapolis eliminated single-family zoning altogether in 2018, while California moved to clear the way for more duplex buildings and lot-splitting three years later. Moreno cast Colorado’s approach as a middle ground between more radical rezoning and the status quo, one that respects local control while acknowledging that housing is a statewide problem.

Local government groups aren’t so sure, and the silence surrounding the plan’s conception hasn’t eased their concerns. In a position paper released Thursday, the Colorado Municipal League reiterated its opposition to “preemption of local authority” and “one-size-fits-all approaches to zoning.” The group’s executive director, Kevin Bommer, said he didn’t want to comment on the plan until he’d seen the draft.

In a statement to the Post, Polis said a bill was “closer” and that his office had worked with “more than 100 business, environmental, housing, and local leaders to ensure that Colorado can move forward with the best plan to address the housing crisis.”

The precise details of that plan — like how legislators will encourage density around transit corridors — remain in flux. Typically, transit-oriented development has involved zoning all single-family lots within a certain distance from a station for multi-family housing.

“Those are more nuanced conversations around what fits within the character of a neighborhood,” Moreno said. “That one’s going to be a bit more challenging. But there’s definitely an element of this that’s about creating more density, duplexes, triplexes.”

Because the exact details are still being worked out, it’s unclear how many new units could be built by loosening those zoning restrictions. Chessy Brady, the transit-oriented development manager for RTD, said that generally speaking, much of the area around stations is already zoned to encourage density. To have a larger impact, she said, broad multi-family zoning would need to be extended further, to a half-mile or more from stations.

A diverse coalition of housing, environmental and business groups have been involved in the plans, and several previously told the Post that they wanted affordability protections baked into the land-use reforms. They don’t want new units to be entirely market-rate, or for newly rezoned and more valuable property to fuel further gentrification and displacement.

Moreno said he was aware of affordability concerns and that he and others were working on ways to address them in legislation. But, like the rest of the effort, the exact details of how to do that are still being worked out.

“It’s something we’re very much dedicated to because the last thing we want to do is create a situation where people are being pushed out of their communities,” he said. “We’re really sensitive to that.”

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