Nestled in a valley at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder, Colorado, looks more like a national park than a city. Its compact, low-slung buildings follow trails and a walkable downtown from greenery to greenbelt, where its undeveloped plains evoke the Old West. Farther out still are the Ls—sprawling suburbs like Lafayette, Louisville, and Longmont—but in Boulder’s center, they feel a world away. The hip coffee shops and breweries along downtown’s Pearl Street are practically clichéd now, but Boulder’s dichotomies—aging strip malls beside thriving offices for Google and Twitter, hiking stores blending into the Italianate campus of the University of Colorado–Boulder—are striking.
The city enacts a “virtuous economic cycle,” as Conor Dougherty noted in the New York Times, “in which the university churns out smart people, the smart people attract employers, and the amenities make everyone want to stay.” Until the Covid-19 pandemic, Boulder County’s unemployment rates regularly dipped below 2 percent, among the nation’s lowest. While some 100,000 people call Boulder home, at least another 60,000 workers commuted in every day, pre-pandemic. Boulder residents enjoy median incomes that rank among the highest in the United States. Boulder’s startups have absorbed a third of all venture-capital dollars flowing into Colorado since 2013.
Yet staying in Boulder is easier if you’ve already lived here for decades. As is often true with in-demand cities, too little new housing supply has been built in response to soaring property values. As its older population swells and young people struggle with living costs, the odds that Boulder becomes an Aspen-like retiree community increase with every year. The city’s future vibrancy depends significantly on whether the many talented newcomers who want to live here can afford to do so.
As recently as 1990, Boulder’s median home values were nearly the same as in the surrounding county; now, they are more than $200,000 pricier. Boulder is Colorado’s most expensive real-estate market: the median home goes for $770,000, post-Covid—a 76 percent increase from 2011—and nearly all single-family homes go for well north of $1 million. By contrast, during the years from 1960 to 1980, when more than 40 percent of the city’s housing stock was built, a typical home easily went for a tenth of that price in real terms. A home purchased for $100,000 in today’s dollars in South Boulder could easily go for $1.5 million today.
Boulder’s housing supply is limited upward by height restrictions, outward by growth boundaries, and inward by rules and fees on land zoned 80 percent for single-family use. While Boulder limits housing expansion to 1 percent annually, a limit that it rarely reaches, the Ls are growing at double-digit rates. In effect, Boulder’s affordable housing program is moving to the suburbs.
Renting is no easier. The average one-bedroom apartment goes for roughly $2,000 monthly. Some 40 percent of Boulder’s renters are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half their incomes on rent (though this figure, as with the city’s poverty figure, may be skewed by a 30,000-plus student population). To newcomers, Boulder’s housing market increasingly resembles a barbell, with subsidized and wait-listed housing on one end and millionaire housing on the other. Obtaining reasonably priced accommodation is hard, even for well-paid technology workers.
While housing may be the city’s Number One concern for newcomers, the rise in home prices has meant a financial windfall for longer-term residents; the typical senior here boasts nearly $500,000 in home equity. Longtime owners who first bought their homes on a middle-class budget have seen their property values soar by 5-, 10-, or even 15-fold.
But the housing shortage has also meant a higher cost of living—and more traffic. Boulder was once a suburb of Denver, but 200 percent job growth over the past 40 years has meant a reversal of commuting patterns into the city and a demand for pricier “lifestyle” amenities. For long-term residents, then, gains in property values have been tempered by what can feel like a slow unraveling of the community fabric.
Still, these homeowners are in an enviable position. More than 60 percent of Boulder residents don’t earn enough to buy a house, including the disproportionate percentage of minorities living below the poverty line. (Minorities constitute 13 percent of Boulder’s population.) Only 13 percent of children who grow up in Boulder stay as adults, a figure that drops to less than 5 percent for children of low-income families. Boulder is increasingly splitting between young and old, newcomer and long-timer, renter and homeowner, poor and prosperous. Loving Boulder is one thing—living in it is another.
Perhaps the deepest split in Boulder is generational, between older, middle-class, educated residents and a rising generation of affluent, cosmopolitan techies—and, behind them, young progressive housing advocates, who see themselves fighting for the opportunities already secured by Boulder’s older, landed elites. These divisions are apparent in city council elections, which also determine the selection of Boulder’s mayor. Since at least the 1980s, slow-growth forces have held sway over local elections, until 2015, when a slate of pro-housing growth council candidates broke through. In the years since, groups like Better Boulder (“sustainable and smart development”) have squared off against others like PLAN Boulder (“growth should be carefully controlled”), with elections seesawing in 2017 and again in 2019.
Boulder’s housing crisis has been long in the making, arguably tracing its roots to the city’s founding and a persistent conflict over whether to prioritize growing jobs or housing. Boulder’s first town meeting, held in February 1859, divided between “lowers,” arguing for affordable land for the waves of newcomers prospecting for recently discovered gold, and “uppers,” who “felt that [Boulder] should control immigration by settling a high value on the real estate.” The debate proved bitter; the uppers prevailed. When nearby homestead lands sold for $1.25 an acre, Boulder’s were priced at an incredible $6,250 an acre, with more affordable parcels set aside as something like workforce housing. The Boulder City Town Company, a real-estate venture disguised as a government, imposed exacting building codes detailing everything from the placement of chimneys to the length of walls. Boulder’s growth slowed to a halt, just as designed—and not for the last time.
Later, in 1910, when Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of the famed Central Park designer, formulated a plan for what he hoped would become a more modern Boulder, he made one recommendation clear: Boulder must be a “city of homes.” Boulder would always be prosperous and intellectual, he observed, and meeting these demands would “occupy and support” a great number of jobs. (Already, tension was mounting between the priorities of jobs and housing growth.) That’s why, Olmsted concluded, the “manufacture of the best possible city of agreeable homes” was “essential” and should be “the principal business which the community has before it.”
Post–World War II, Boulder planned to be as large as modern-day Colorado Springs, with a population of nearly 500,000, or nearly five times larger than its present size. Postwar, Boulder was flooded with returning veterans utilizing the GI Bill and job seekers recognizing the city as a key target of increased federal spending on scientific research and military hardware. Boulder went from being the home of a single enterprise, Western Cutlery, to adding multiple labs run by the Commerce Department, as well as the nearby Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility.
The city’s population doubled from 1940 to 1950 and kept growing at a rapid clip throughout the 1960s. Boulder’s roads emanated eastward, following the points on a compass from the base of the Flatirons, each lengthy strip of concrete meant to serve as a conduit for future development. In short order, suburban developments began sprouting up along the newly built turnpike to Denver, promising “quality homes, comfortable living and reasonable prices.”
But already, new voices emerged in reaction to the Eisenhower-era Republicans who controlled Boulder in mid-century. In 1959, voters adopted a ballot measure establishing a “blue line,” or a maximum elevation for the city’s water supply, an effort by a local professor to forestall growth in the city’s foothills. Later, in the 1960s, voters approved the establishment of a greenbelt around the city and, in the 1970s, a 2 percent cap on housing expansion (eventually lowered to 1 percent).
In 1971, residents tried passing a ballot initiative setting a maximum population; though it narrowly failed, another referendum passed that year directed the city government to limit growth to a level “substantially below” that of the 1960s. Subsequent years would see these restrictions tightened, as preservationists swept into the city council.
Nearly 50 years later, though, the battle in Boulder is between and among progressives, older and younger. In 20 years, a quarter of the county’s population will be over 60, and disproportionately likely to live in Boulder proper. The number of seniors struggling to live independently is expected to double in less than a decade; they and their peers will need support from the nurses or social-services workers struggling to afford their own living costs. Retirees are also likely to demand the sort of compact or communal living hard to build in Boulder today.
Understandably, then, housing is the topic du jour. The Daily Camera, the city’s main newspaper, mentioned housing in 1,034 articles this year, up to October (nearly three times a day), and the subject found its way into countless city council meetings. Elected officials in Boulder should be keenly aware of the progressive paralysis that has mired states like California in limbo, with millions of new homes left unbuilt. Already, neighboring cities like Lakewood (Colorado’s fifth-largest city) are following Boulder’s lead in limiting new housing and setting growth boundaries, and an attempted 2020 ballot initiative would have placed a 1 percent annual cap on new housing permits along Colorado’s Front Range.
Fulfilling Olmsted’s vision for Boulder as a “city of homes” requires housing both affordable and available. Even as Boulder labors toward its goal of a housing stock that is 15 percent permanently affordable, prices remain high, thanks to an overall shortage in housing. And while the city has recently tried raising “linkage fees” to slow commercial development, it’s unclear if any wealthy city has ever balanced its ratio of jobs to housing by stopping job creation—certainly not to any positive effect.
“We like baby steps in Boulder,” said one local over breakfast at the Laughing Goat, an artsy coffeehouse on the main drag. That’s surely true with housing, whether with the city’s recent loosening of rules on backyard cottages and shared cooperative housing or the strengthening of inclusionary housing laws. Yet even these incremental reforms took political doing; and, as presently zoned, the city still only has the “capacity for 6,400 more homes and 45,000 more jobs,” said Mayor Sam Weaver recently.
As Boulder seemingly prices itself out of being a livable city, local policymakers could be tempted to believe that they are faced with impossible choices over affordability, job growth, and neighborhood character. But are these false choices? Are there successful strategies for “lifting the dome” on Boulder’s development, while preserving its essential beauty and character? What this city in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains is experiencing is a microcosm of the pressures felt in communities around the country.
Take the “gentle” density of accessory dwelling units (ADUs). These backyard apartments are part of a class of naturally affordable, “missing-middle” housing that, like duplexes and garden apartments, were an integral part of residential neighborhoods across the country before roughly the 1940s. They’re meant to blend in, consistent with the character of existing neighborhoods. When California effectively legalized ADUs in 2017, permit applications in Los Angeles rose 30-fold over just two years. This past summer, lawmakers in Oregon re-legalized duplexes across the state and fourplexes in its largest cities. California did the same for duplexes, and Minneapolis for duplexes and triplexes. Their reforms gained the support not only of “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) activists and developers but of labor unions seeking side work, teachers looking for affordable housing, and senior-living groups like AARP, among others. In each case, ADUs and duplexes formed the lowest of low-hanging fruit for housing reform, and their backers sought wide coalitions for passing reform at the highest level of government possible.
In Boulder, progress has been stingier. The city has permitted a grand total of five ADUs a year since 1981. It did enact ADU reform in 2018 (with further revisions in 2020), but the measure contained the very constraints on ADU growth that California waived: neighborhood limits, discretionary review, parking requirements, and more. The fact that ADUs proved such a heavy lift in Boulder is surprising, especially considering that the city’s existing nuisance laws and design standards should forestall concerns about ADUs, such as more noise or traffic from additional housing. A similar dynamic was likely at play last spring when a Boulder initiative campaign called “Bedrooms Are for People” faced council and community opposition to changing occupancy rules limiting the number of unrelated people allowed to live together under the same roof. After the group gathered the requisite number of signatures, the city council simply raised the signature requirement and declared the petitioners’ campaign a lost cause—even as such resistance earned a reproachful executive order from Governor Jared Polis in July calling on municipalities to lift such occupancy restrictions so that tenants could more easily find an affordable place to live during a pandemic.
But opportunities for change remain: Boulder is among the most heavily retailed cities in the U.S., much of it sited in aging shopping centers built in the 1970s and 1980s. The city’s commercial real estate is too often located far from housing, further worsening congestion. A “smart infill” approach of, say, converting retail into mixed-use development—ideally linked with better bus rapid transit and the necessary density to make walkable neighborhoods possible—is something that Boulder has already tentatively considered. At present, mixed-use takes up a vanishingly small share of Boulder’s zoned land (0.52 percent) and requires an enormous amount of open space (not to mention lengthy discretionary review), which could be remedied in the city’s Transit Village as well as East Boulder, bordering its greenspace. It’s hard to imagine Boulder becoming seriously affordable absent a raising of the city’s height limits, especially along transit corridors and commercial zones east of downtown (akin to Paris’s development of La Defense). And surely, some portion of Boulder’s 45,000-acre ring of open space could be opened up, as preexisting developments around the city’s reservoir suggest.
While the Colorado Way is strongly localist and blanches at overweening state oversight, state and even regional bodies are well positioned, in theory, to encourage more housing supply across Boulder. Governor Polis’s environmental agenda depends on freeing up compact housing supply that shortens commute times and curtails emissions. Colorado’s Department of Transportation, for instance, has the leverage to drive the “balanced growth” of mobility and housing for Boulder County.
Pro-housing coalitions are slowly exerting greater influence in Boulder’s political universe. Activist groups favoring housing growth have sprung up, including the newly formed Boulder Progressives, as well as business organizations like the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. Yet technology firms and their employees largely remain on the sidelines, as do most younger voters, who stay just long enough to earn a degree or start a family. A large portion of the middle class has likewise opted out by leaving Boulder. At present, the city is a model case for what happens when local politics is highly responsive to the economic interests of “home voters.” It’s the combined interests of activists and business, developers and labor, and the middle class that will likely be necessary to ease restrictive land-use regulations.
The next election for Boulder’s city council, in November, will be revealing. Even a single seat flip could shift the council in a pro-growth direction. And Boulder is presently updating not only its use tables—which govern the types of housing and business development allowed in each zone—but also its comprehensive plan, which allows for a change in zoning across the entire city. While the city almost never considers major policy shifts in this planning process, even the sometimes-obscure workings of government present opportunities for reform. Already, Boulder city planners are looking to the 2025 planning process as an occasion to explore new opportunities for housing development.
Boulder is now growing four times as many new jobs as new homes. The modern-day digital gold rush is staking out land made scarce by restrictive land-use regulations such that all but the most prosperous Boulderites are outbid for scarce housing and office space. Those limits on development are meant to preserve Boulder’s exceptional natural beauty, mountain views, and small-town character. But as the cost of living rises ever higher, many local residents perceive significant collateral damage to the other things that make Boulder unique—its densely woven community, open and creative culture, and desire for equity.
Born a boomtown, Boulder has sought to preserve itself in the face of growth ever since. Time and again, periods of expansion were built on the exhaustion of preservation as an organizing interest, when new political coalitions formed. For such a thing to happen now in Boulder may seem unlikely, but as Minneapolis recently learned, shifts in the political winds can happen suddenly. Seattle’s ADU reform took five years to bring about, following heated debates—and after decades of local citizens making their case. It’s worth noting in this context that the most celebrated architectural features of Boulder’s environment would be illegal to build today.
Boulder remains a place where people long to live—the city described in the Rocky Mountain News in 1865 as “presenting an eternal scene of beauty and grandeur,” with all the advantages “necessary to a speedy growth of our place.” Another 100,000 people could live in Boulder County by 2050, and in the next decade, the number of jobs will grow by nearly 50 percent. Upper or lower, neighbor or newcomer—they are Boulder, too.
This article is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Top Photo: Boulder’s 100,000 residents enjoy median incomes that rank among the highest in the United States. (KENT RANEY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)