City, state lawmakers in Arapahoe County talk housing crisis, ‘missing middle’

Affordable housing at center of concerns

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Large and expensive single-family homes are a defining feature of much of the south Denver metro area, but collectively, they can function as a barrier for the area’s younger demographic.

“We’re sitting in our big family homes, but our kids can’t afford to move” to the same area, said Candace Moon, a Centennial city councilmember.

She spoke at a town hall event alongside state Rep. David Ortiz, state Sen. Jeff Bridges, and two Littleton city councilmembers about steps the cities and the state legislature are considering to tackle the housing affordability crisis in the metro area and beyond.

Workers who are critical to the fabric of communities — such as teachers, nurses, law enforcement and firefighters — may find it difficult to afford living in a place like Centennial, according to Moon.

“We refer to them as the ‘missing middle,’” Moon said at the April 9 event held at the Littleton Museum.

Bridges, a Democrat who represents a district that includes Littleton, Englewood, Sheridan and nearby areas, placed the issue in the context of recent history: Leaders need to take action so metro Denver’s housing crisis doesn’t one day “look like San Francisco and New York City,” Bridges said.

Bolstered by funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, state officials have an opportunity to start addressing the housing problem, Bridges said. The rescue plan act is the economic stimulus bill signed into law in March 2021 with a goal to support the economic and public health recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the actions Bridges and Ortiz, also a Democrat, hope state lawmakers will pass is state Senate Bill 22-159, a proposal that would create a “revolving loan” program to finance affordable housing, senior housing and housing designed for people living with disabilities, according to a handout at the town hall.

Under the bill, eligible recipients would include local governments and for-profit developers.

Another of the ideas Bridges and Ortiz praised is state House Bill 22-1304, a proposal that would provide grants to local governments and nonprofits around the state to buy land and develop affordable housing in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, according to the town hall handout.

Local governments have a large role to play in shaping new housing developments, and Moon says Centennial is considering redoing part of its land development code. That’s the document that lays out zoning — a city's rules for what can be built where — and sets design standards for new construction.

For example, allowing residents to have an ADU, or an accessory dwelling unit — a small residential space located behind a house or attached to a garage — can be helpful for people who have parents living at home or adult children, Moon said.

The councilmember also said Centennial is considering a “density bonus program” to increase construction.

The town hall sought to recast the term “density,” which often elicits negative reactions from area residents who oppose building multi-family developments, such as apartments or duplexes.

Littleton City Councilmember Stephen Barr wants the public to think about “gentle density,” which he referred to as “not all trailer parks and skyrises.”

Barr argued that a “NIMBY” mindset — a “not in my back yard” attitude toward new development — is not sustainable in the long run.

Kelly Milliman, a Littleton city councilmember, said growth is inevitable as the region and the country continue to grow.

Speaking about Littleton, she said: “We could put up the walls, we could say no more development, and then what do we turn into? A very expensive community.”

The landscape of local governments’ power to affect housing affordability saw a big change in 2021 when Gov. Jared Polis signed state House Bill 1117, a measure allowing local governments to impose affordable housing requirements on new developments.

State House Bill 1117 modified state land-use statutes so local governments can require below-market-rate units in new or redeveloped rental projects without running afoul of the state’s rent-control prohibition, The Colorado Sun reported. It reverses the effects of a 2000 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that restrained local governments for years, according to the Sun.

Under House Bill 1117, cities can impose affordable housing requirements on new or redeveloped projects so long as they give developers or property owners alternatives to building affordable units on-site. For example, they could trade those for affordable units built elsewhere, pay a fee into an affordable housing fund, or any number of other options, the Sun reported.

It's unclear whether cities such as Littleton and Centennial will invoke that power in future attempts to address housing prices, but Littleton’s council in particular may soon consider what Milliman called an “inclusionary housing ordinance.”

That proposal would “maybe incentivize or regulate developments to have (some) number of affordable housing units,” Milliman said. “We don’t know yet.”

Moon encouraged the public to give input about housing on the City of Centennial’s website.

Bridges represents state Senate District 26, an area that includes Littleton, Englewood, Sheridan, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village, the Columbine Valley area and parts of Aurora.

Ortiz represents state House District 38, an area that covers much of Littleton, west Centennial, Bow Mar and Columbine Valley.

Centennial Colorado, Littleton, city council, state legislature, affordable housing, Ellis Arnold

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