Nov. 10, 2021 Housing Equity Symposium: A Summary

A community conversation about race, class and housing in Boulder.

By Kathleen McCormick, BHN Editor

Should Boulder follow the lead of cities like Minneapolis and outlaw single-family zoning? This was one of many questions to consider from a recent housing equity forum examining racism and exclusionary zoning and their lingering impact on affordable and diverse housing in Boulder.

On November 10, 2021, the City of Boulder, the Boulder Chamber, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Colorado hosted the live and livestreamed Boulder Housing Equity Symposium at eTown Hall, which featured Congressman Joe Neguse and local and national speakers. The symposium, which can be streamed here, focused on Boulder’s race and class history and how the city could begin a community dialogue to identify specific actions to address long-standing inequities.

Kurt Firnhaber, housing and human services director for the city, said Boulder’s comprehensive plan presents a vision for a compact, walkable, and transit-linked city offering diversity and adequate affordable housing. However, he said, often when we get closer to the comp plan vision through a specific development proposal, “the community becomes very uncomfortable.” He said he hoped the symposium would “prime the pump for our new city council” to address housing equity. Boulder’s new mayor, Aaron Brockett, city manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, and other members of the city’s Racial Equity Guiding Coalition attended the event.

Clay Fong, the city’s manager of community relations and office of human rights, presented a brief history of race, class, and housing in Boulder that linked the white settlement and early development of Boulder to displacement and violence against Indigenous people, exclusion of the working class from owning high-priced land in what became central Boulder neighborhoods, and later ‘de facto’ racial segregation by neighborhoods along with Boulder’s history as a stronghold for white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan. The city’s history of racism and exclusion is a conversation that “isn’t easy and many people feel uncomfortable about,” Fong said. He said the intent of the event was not finger-pointing, but rather to present some solutions. “Homes are the largest single tool for building prosperity and wealth,” and where we live generally determines opportunities in education, jobs, healthcare, recreation amenities, and other quality-of-life measures.

From 1992 to 2021, the city’s number of permanently affordable homes increased from 981 to 3,676, Fong said. “The news is good concerning more diversity of people living in affordable housing with a broader range of incomes” and with community consensus that affordable housing is a key priority. The city has set a goal of achieving 15 percent of all housing units to be affordable for low, moderate, and middle-income households by 2035. About 8.4 percent of Boulder’s housing stock is considered affordable now. But at the same time, Fong said, Boulder is experiencing “Aspenization” and becoming older, whiter, and wealthier. He quoted historian Abram X. Kendi, author of How To Be an Antiracist, on how disparities signaled by huge gaps in economic wealth are a sign of racist policies, which Kendi defines as written or unwritten laws, regulations, rules, or processes “that produce or sustain racial inequity.” 

Dr. Jennifer Fluri, a geography professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the CU-Boulder Affordable Housing Research Initiative (CU BAHRI), which has partnered with the city, Boulder Housing Partners, Thistle, and other affordable housing and social services agencies, said her team has documented a link between racial background and the need for affordable housing in Boulder. The CU BAHRI team conducted oral histories with Latinx and Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) who have experienced racism and economic exclusion in Boulder. “We were not finding clear institutionalized racism like redlining based on racial makeup in the housing division or in affordable housing communities,” she said. But the team did find instances of abuses of power, such as realtors who required Latinx home buyers to pay $1,000 just to be shown a home or who were threatened with deportation if they didn’t sell their home. Many people interviewed said they did not feel safe in Boulder’s predominantly white community. Much of the racial discrimination in Boulder, she said, “is implicit and unconscious bias.”

“We have a shared responsibility to acknowledge our past and create a path forward,” said Laura Soto of Bridging Communication. The city needs to “bring an inclusive lens for housing that benefits the community as a whole.” Soto moderated a panel discussion that included Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council and an urban planner, Dr. Abby Hickox, associate director of the CU Arts & Sciences Honors Program and co-founder of CU BAHRI, and Dr. Tiffany Manuel, or “Dr. T.,” president of TheCaseMade, a national consulting firm focused on strategic community planning for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Bender was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2014 as a housing advocate, as the city population was growing, housing prices were rising, and many residents were calling for more diverse and affordable housing options. In 2020, Minneapolis became the first major U.S. city to abolish single-family zoning, opening up nearly three-quarters of the city’s land, which was zoned for single-family homes, for denser and more diverse housing. The city updated the zoning code to allow for duplexes and triplexes citywide in single-family neighborhoods and denser development along transit corridors. (For a deeper dive, see “Rezoning History,” published by Land Lines/Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Minneapolis has accomplished other significant housing changes. Since 2014, led by a progressive mayor and city council, it has permitted accessory dwelling units (ADUs), encouraged the development of smaller “missing middle” apartment buildings, instituted protections for renters, and has eliminated parking minimums and occupancy ordinances, with no maximum number of residents per home. The city is working with local contractors and neighborhoods of color to redevelop properties, sell homes to local families, help finance cooperative housing purchases, and provide financial assistance and tenant opportunity-to-purchase options, partnering with nonprofits to buy homes. 

Minneapolis made these housing changes after a two-year comprehensive plan and community visioning process that was based on extensive engagement, education, and relationship building with different cultural communities. The city’s willingness to change its policies also was informed by a communitywide reckoning with its racist housing history. Research conducted by an interdisciplinary team at the University of Minnesota revealed the city’s long and deep history of redlining, or excluding people of color from obtaining loans and buying properties, in most neighborhoods. The team documented over 20,000 covenants from 1900 through 1960 that prohibited home sales on the basis of race or ethnicity. The legacy of redlining is evident today in Minneapolis, including a concentration of Black residents on the north side of the city, the lowest Black homeownership rate in the U.S., a high poverty rate among Black residents, and scant access for people of color to high-quality jobs, education, healthcare, and services. 

While Boulder was not redlined, city policies limiting growth and development have limited diversity, said Hickox. In the 1960s, the need for affordable housing was already apparent, with residents expressing concern over the cost of living even as the open space and mountain parks system began to benefit from tax dollars. The 1968 goals and objectives for the city emphasized the importance of making housing available “for all who live and work in the city.” But while a culture supporting open space and urban planning has been developed, “the city has not been able to create a culture that supports” diverse and affordable housing, she said. “Open space measures have always passed, but affordable housing measures haven’t, including Bedrooms Are for People.” Boulder has always chosen to focus on environmental protections for land rather than housing for people, she added. “We need to break out of the zero-sum paradigm” and practice “and thinking” to consider the prosperity dividend that can support all residents. The city has the opportunity to be a leader in providing both open space and affordable housing for diverse residents, she said. It needs to address “status quo” racism and lack of equity, recognize who lives here, and work toward making Boulder more open and welcoming.

Having worked with cities such as Charlotte and the District of Columbia with a focus on “asset-based planning,” Manuel said, “the challenges are largely the same, and the issues that hold them back are issues of public will.” Cities “can have all the policies, but unless you’re making an intentional effort to bring people into the conversation, overcoming issues such as historical racism can backfire.” Boulder may have barriers such as zoning, regulations, funding, and NIMBYism, she said, but it also has abundant opportunities. She said approaches that show promise for more diverse home ownership are shared equity models and community land trusts, which buy land and thus reduce the cost of owning homes on that land. “Start with appreciating what we have, what we want to take into the future, and what we want to leave behind, and create a different kind of narrative to get buy-in for this work.” She advised making the connections between environmentalism or climate change and affordable housing. “Think about how to connect the dots so [everyone] realizes we’re all in this together.”

“We have to acknowledge that renting is a reality for young people, older people, young families, so leveling the playing field is critical” with practices to protect renters such as rent control, said Bender. When asked where Boulder should start, Bender said, “What I’ve learned in Minneapolis is that it’s good to have big goal setting and also to just to start somewhere. Our inclusionary housing policy doesn’t go far enough, but we’re working on it. We’ve changed our ADU policy three times already. We know the status quo is not working for everyone and reflecting our values, so we have to keep working.” Cities have to be able to make compromises and support incremental change, she said, “so we can eventually get to bigger shifts.” ###

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