Stagnant Housing; Urgent Need for Simpler Regulations

By BHN Editor Caitlin M. Ryan, PhD

You may have wondered where BHN has been the last few months. The simple answer is that while Boulder’s new City Council and Planning Board members bring a welcome verbal commitment to affordable housing, there has been very little action on housing lately. Why? Two culprits, acting in tandem, are responsible: an acute staffing crisis and the complex, at times downright convoluted, planning and approval process. Without action on both fronts, Boulder might squander the momentum and goodwill on more affordable housing that brought us today’s Council. To resolve the problem, the city should hire an outside team of consultants to simplify and streamline the building code.

Staffing problems are serious. We were without a Planning Director for six months; one of our most senior and experienced planners, Elaine McLaughlin, is retiring soon; Jean Gatza, a superb Senior Planner and Engagement Specialist, resigned in April; James Hewat, Principal Historic Preservation Planner, recently left (and, a few months before, Marcy Cameron, Hewat’s second in command, also left). With so many vacancies, it is nearly impossible to get anything new done. 

The staffing situation complicates existing problems in Boulder’s convoluted process of approving and building new housing, especially at scale. City staff play an essential role in administrative review of small new housing projects, but for larger housing projects – the kind that are needed to resolve our housing crisis – the required Site Review is also staff-intensive. 

The Rube Goldberg legal apparatus of planning in Boulder is long and complex, with provisions that are often in direct conflict: the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, the Boulder Revised Code, attendant City Manager Regulations, Site Review Criteria (BRC §9-2-14), and Design and Construction Standards. Together, these standards are so challenging to administer that new staff members, once hired, need six months of training and study to become effective and independent in their work. 

In addition to hiring, the city must get to a place where administration and compliance with this web of regulations is simpler. As BHN Editor Kurt Nordback explains in this issue, staff are presenting the conclusion of a 4-year project to revise the Site Review Criteria on May 19 (and the draft is far from simple). That is just one part of the city’s planning apparatus. The Code is also complex and in need of revision. 

While short on staff, the city does have the funds to hire outside expertise that can help us out of this quagmire. BHN believes that the job should be done by an outside consultant team not involved in the original crafting of the planning code and other various regulations. Investing in a process of simplification couldn’t be more urgent. It will allow the city to be more responsive in both the medium and longer term to our housing needs.

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