By HILLARY COOPER and KELLY McNICHOLAS KURY

The importance of having a safe, comfortable, affordable home became more obvious than ever over the past 13 months. Yet counties and municipalities across Colorado continue to struggle to deliver enough affordable housing for the workers that form the backbone of our communities and economies.

This is a significant challenge that has evolved into a crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. When people cannot afford their housing, they often go without vital necessities like food, water and medical care. We need more tools to address affordable housing shortages. More investments in housing for our workforce will result in dividends for families and workers’ health.

Local solutions vary and we need a wide variety of tools as we pursue solutions that address our community needs. An important tool for local governments to make headway on increasing affordable housing is the permission to create inclusionary zoning ordinances offered by House Bill 1117 that is moving through the Colorado Assembly. This bill would allow, but not force, towns, cities, and counties to incorporate the crucial concept of affordability into the local land-use policies that regulate residential construction. With the rapidly growing demand in our mountain towns, we need to take an all of the above approach; we need publicly funded affordable housing developments, we need inclusionary zoning and other zoning tools to include workforce housing with free-market residential development, and we need incentives like tax credits for willing developers to keep housing affordable.

Over the past 20 years since the court ruled that inclusionary zoning was a form of rent control, and therefore not allowed in Colorado, the real-time question of whether or not free-market growth would solve the housing crisis has played out. It has shown that yes, indeed, Colorado has been delivering new housing supply. But unfortunately, much of this has been luxury or for short-term rental use, and has displaced longtime neighborhoods that working families call home. Our extreme housing cost disparities fail to make new housing accessible to our working families and longtime community members. Many drive long distances for school and work, creating negative impacts on our sensitive mountain climate. As frustrations increase, anti-growth sentiments also increase, leading to conflict and growth-control ballot measures. The best way to keep our communities in support of managed growth is to show them that housing for our existing workforce will be included in it.

Amending HB21-1117 to create a narrowly defined use of inclusionary zoning would be a mistake. Land prices, housing demand, transportation options, and density constraints vary widely between mountain communities and urban areas. Some communities have already used impact fees, mitigation-based policies, and density incentives such as ADU allowances. Even the aggressive use of these options have not solved our housing crisis and in many communities we face implementation challenges, which demonstrates the need for flexibility as we customize our tools to realize more affordable housing. Adding amendments to restrict our tools could also undermine some of the current programs that are in place and creating housing. As local leaders, we know how to consider our economic conditions, appropriate density, parking policies, geographical land-use considerations, historic preservation objectives, and existing community-developed master plans. We need flexible housing options to account for these conditions that vary from community to community. As policy makers, we have a built-in incentive to calibrate policies that achieve ongoing production of affordable housing. If development restrictions are too high, our economies and our workforce will suffer.

Local governments around the state support House Bill 1117, including those that are part of Colorado Counties, Inc (CCI); Counties and Commissioners Acting Together (CCAT); the Colorado Municipal League (CML); and Colorado Communities for Climate Action (CC4CA).

The free market has pushed higher-priced development for too long, leading to our severe housing shortages. We need more tools now, like inclusionary zoning, to build affordability into development in order to house our workforce and families so our year-round communities can thrive and be healthy.

Hilary Cooper is a San Miguel County commissioner and Kelly McNicholas Kury is a Pitkin County commissioner.