And why local governments hate it
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On a Wednesday afternoon in March, the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, in Denver’s South Park Hill neighborhood, was packed. The local chapter of the progressive group Indivisible was sponsoring a mayoral-candidate forum. Five candidates had been invited to attend. The moderator asked the usual questions about crime and public safety, homelessness and guns. Then came a question comprehensible only to a close observer of Denver politics: “Do you support releasing the city-owned conservation easement on the Park Hill Golf Course to allow the currently proposed redevelopment of this site?”
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Four candidates raised their hands, a couple only halfway, as if that sign of reluctance might lessen the coming disapproval. It didn’t. The crowd booed.
In 1997, Denver paid the owners of the Park Hill Golf Course $2 million to place a conservation easement on the property, limiting how it could be used. More than 20 years later, Westside Investment Partners bought the by-then-defunct golf course for $24 million. After a contentious community-input process, lawsuits, and allegations of stolen lawn signs, the company settled on a proposal to build 2,500 homes (including a significant number of affordable, family, and senior units) as well as some commercial space. It also promised to reserve two-thirds of the 155-acre property as open space. In 2021, Denver voters approved a ballot measure giving themselves the power to decide the easement’s fate.
On April 4 of this year, voters declined to lift the easement. The split was 59–41, not exactly close. Some observers have taken this outcome as a signal that the people of Denver (or, at least, the fewer than 100,000 who voted down the proposal) reject new development. But in that same election, voters sent two candidates who supported the proposal to a mayoral runoff. Back in the 2022 statewide election, almost a quarter million Denver voters supported Democratic Governor Jared Polis, who campaigned on increasing housing supply and dismantling local roadblocks to construction in order to get a handle on Colorado’s housing-affordability crisis. Also that year, nearly 1.3 million Coloradans voted to dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to increasing affordable housing. In Denver, the measure won 70–30. Deciding “what the people believe” is not so easy.
Colorado is short an estimated 127,000 homes. The Denver metro area alone is short nearly 70,000 homes. The housing shortage is the main driver of the region’s affordability crisis, and housing-policy experts—though they remain divided on many questions—are nearly unanimous in their belief that resolving it will require bringing many more homes to market. From 2012 to 2017, the region permitted only one new home for every 5.4 new jobs; over the same period, home prices in Denver jumped by 50 percent.
When someone who favors new development in theory opposes a specific project near where they live, we call them a NIMBY. NIMBYism is regularly characterized as a case of revealed preferences: Talk is cheap, and support for policies in the abstract is worthless. Voting for a candidate who champions pro-housing policies is one thing; agreeing to new development in your neighborhood is another.
Conflicting desires do not by themselves prove hypocrisy, however. Some people really do want to see more housing in general, even if they don’t want construction next door. The problem is that the local institutions charged with land-use decisions are attuned to parochial complaints, not large-scale needs.
Jerusalem Demsas: Housing breaks people’s brains
The level of government at which we choose to resolve a conflict shapes public opinion and the eventual outcome. The same question posed at a town hall, at a county-council meeting, in the governor’s office, or by Congress will not be answered the same way in each venue. The tools available, the norms of debate, and the architecture of accountability change drastically from place to place. Americans believe that housing is a local issue. And it is a local issue. But it is also a regional issue, a state issue, and a national issue. By restricting the debate to the hyperlocal level, we’ve blocked out our big-picture values.
Across metro areas, in states led by Democrats and Republicans alike, the same pattern emerges: Local governments decide what gets built and where, and they use that power to ban multifamily housing, entrench economic segregation, and perpetuate a national affordability crisis.
It’s tough to admit, but sometimes NIMBYs have a point. In Denver, I spoke with dozens of community leaders, elected officials, and voters who live near the Park Hill Golf Course. Opponents of the project raised concerns about preserving open spaces, about gentrification, about the democratic process itself.
Former Mayor Wellington Webb told me he opposes developing the Park Hill site because it’s “the last piece of open space, land, in Denver.”
Leslie Herod, a Colorado state representative and an unsuccessful candidate in this year’s mayoral race, also opposes the proposal. She told me she had identified more than 80 underutilized city-owned lots already zoned for residential development where she would rather see housing built.
The Denver city-council member Candi CdeBaca made a version of the “other places” argument too, questioning why development efforts are never focused on wealthy neighborhoods. “We’re not talking about development in places where people have privilege,” she told me. “Those places are protected with their zoning, those places are protected with their level of engagement, those places are protected by the people they have elected to represent them.”
Some voters told me they simply distrusted the process. “There’s no guarantee that if the conservation easement is lifted that the [developer] will honor what they’ve said with creating a park, creating affordable housing,” a landscape architect with an antidevelopment yard sign said.
Of course, no project can solve every problem or skirt every concern. Comparison shopping for umbrellas is fine on a sunny day. When you’re caught in a torrential downpour, it’s wise to take what’s available and run for cover.
For their part, proponents of the Park Hill project, in their eagerness to win votes, tended to oversell what it could accomplish. Some described it as a blow against racism or climate change, or a way to help the working class. In my conversations with the plan’s backers, I sometimes had to remind myself that we were talking about a 155-acre lot, not the fate of the republic.
Land-use regulations and development patterns are a key driver of inequality, pollution, and financial strain. But whether or not the Park Hill plan was approved would have a negligible impact on these larger crises, which will require collective action beyond the scope of any one project. Asking a neighborhood or municipality to bear the responsibility for a housing crisis and its knock-on effects is asking for failure. Local government simply wasn’t built to do this.
Local government is about what you can do for me, right now. Because local officials have a narrow jurisdiction, engaged voters have a direct line to them and significant influence on their decisions. This tight relationship is good for handling issues like broken streetlights and potholes, but it doesn’t lend itself to managing society-wide problems, such as a housing crisis. This is why the political logic of building a lot more housing rarely carries the day at the local level.
Who would have lived in the Park Hill housing development, had voters approved it? No one knows. It could have been a recent University of Colorado at Boulder graduate or empty-nesters from the suburbs looking to downsize. Many of the people who would most benefit from the new housing don’t yet live in Denver—so they don’t have a vote.
Local housing-policy debates are thus asymmetrical. Construction projects have no readily identifiable beneficiaries, but they do levy clear harms, in the form of excessive noise and street closures and changing neighborhood aesthetics.
Just a small fraction of people even engage in local housing fights. Many of those who do are extreme voices or otherwise unrepresentative of the broader community. Look at Fort Collins, Colorado. After more than five years of community engagement, and many months of work by city planners, a 5–2 majority on the city council voted to liberalize land-use policies to allow more housing. But a small group of opponents pressured the council to reverse itself, gathering 6,500 petition signatures—this in a city of more than 160,000. And they won. The council voted again, this time 7–0 to repeal the change.
In interviews, both the head of the Colorado Municipal League, Kevin Bommer, and Denver’s current mayor, Michael B. Hancock, touted regional collaboration as a solution to the affordability crisis. But just as one town cannot ensure that the entire region maintains adequate green space while increasing density, it cannot force neighboring towns to work together to find the right balance. The incentive is too strong for an individual government to say to its neighbor, “You can have all the apartments—we’ll just keep our parks.”
In addition to the Colorado Municipal League, Colorado has several influential regional associations, including the Metro Mayors Caucus and Colorado Counties Inc. Yet greater Denver is still tens of thousands of housing units short of its needs.
The Denver metro area is particularly desperate for small multifamily dwellings (two to nine units) to meet the demand for affordable housing. According to Carrie Makarewicz, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, roughly 10 percent of homes in the region meet this criteria. By contrast, 85 percent of residentially zoned land is reserved for single-family homes. By this measure, too, the regional associations have come up short.
Collective-action problems require a body that can hold everyone accountable. Regional associations—which rely on voluntary participation—aren’t going to cut it.
The democratic process begins by defining the democratic body. And when it comes to housing, the body of concern does not end at a town’s boundary line. People moving to the Denver metro area look across the city and into the suburbs for a place to live. One suburb’s opposition to building more housing directly affects prices miles away, because it constrains the supply in a market that spans municipalities. Local governments, in seeking to satisfy local concerns, undermine statewide goals. At least, they do in the absence of state intervention.
State government is also about what you can do for me, but on average: That’s the electoral reality of representing voters across geographic constituencies. Governors and other statewide officials are forced to see the bigger picture because they’re accountable not only to the people who live in a particular community, but also to past residents priced out of and displaced from that community, and to future residents as well. (Nor are newcomers overwhelmingly from out of state, as many seem to believe; census data reveal that about 82 percent of moves happen within states.) Denver’s city council represents the people of Denver, not Aurora, and vice versa. The state represents them all. And in recent polling, 60 percent of registered voters supported eliminating local restrictions to allow for multifamily housing.
The Colorado state capitol is just a short drive from Park Hill and a brisk walk from city hall, but feels miles away from the thrum of local politics. I went there two days after the Indivisible forum to interview Governor Polis. From across a large round table in his office, Polis told me that “housing, transit, travel, roads: These are interjurisdictional issues because really, very few Coloradans live their whole lives in one jurisdiction.” Unencumbered by the need to defend any one project or developer, the governor reiterated a simple point: “Demand has exceeded supply for the last couple decades, and prices have gone up.” Colorado has to “create more housing now.”
Soon after providing that clean summary of what Colorado needs, Polis announced his best shot at providing it. Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Montana, and Massachusetts have, to varying degrees, pulled authority for land-use decisions up to the state level. Following their lead, he proposed a bill compelling local governments to adjust their land-use policies to meet housing goals, a process that state officials would oversee. The bill addressed climate, infrastructure, and equity concerns; included provisions for increasing and preserving affordable and multifamily housing; encouraged development near transit; and removed onerous parking requirements.
I asked the governor how he would deal with the political opposition to his bill. “People across the board—Republican, Democrat, independent—housing costs is one of the top items of concern,” he replied. I asked again. “People understand that housing needs to be built,” he told me.
Polis’s original proposal was greeted by fierce opposition from local governments, though not because of objections to open space, affordability, or new parking rules. The fight was over where the power to make land-use decisions should lie.
Kevin Bommer, of the Colorado Municipal League, offered a pithy synthesis of local governments’ position: “Respectfully, get off our lawn,” he told me.
I asked Bommer about his policy disagreements with the governor, but he kept stressing the issue of local control. “My members statewide don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of [Polis’s] goals, but to start with saying that the state gets to set a model code and the state gets to regulate and the state will be in charge of land use going forward is a nonstarter,” he said.
Bommer pointed me to an old amicus brief filed in defense of a local moratorium on fracking by then-Representative Polis. It defended local government’s authority over land-use decisions as both a state-constitution matter and a policy matter. Polis wrote that local democracy allows for “widespread citizen input and broad stakeholder involvement,” as well as “more opportunities for public participation.”
The fact that Representative Polis disagrees with Governor Polis is exactly the point. A congressman represents his district; he has little reason to care that local control can harm the rest of the state. A governor has a wider remit. If Polis the representative was right, and localities really are the best transmitters of their residents’ housing preferences, then what explains clear, widespread discontent with the outcomes of those decisions? Colorado’s housing crisis is undeniable, and its land-use authority has rested with local government virtually unquestioned for decades.
Colorado’s legislative session ended on May 8. The bill died in the Senate without a final vote.
Afterward, the governor told me he intends to keep fighting. States that have passed land-use reforms, such as California and Washington, suffered multiple defeats before seeing a first victory. Polis told me he’s frustrated by communities that said, No, we should do it. “The thing is, they’re not doing it!” he said with a laugh. Polis returned again to his central argument: “It’s beyond the capabilities of [local government] even if there’s a city council or mayor with the best of intentions … We have to figure this out together.”
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Two citywide votes, multiple lawsuits, and accusations of racism, classism, and harassment that divided Denver. What was the point? The property owner is now promising that the former golf course will become … an active golf course. (This despite the fact that the company has never developed a golf course; its founder told me they’re “doing research on it now.”) Well-meaning objectors judge proposals against a hypothetical better option, but in reality, the alternative to a decent project is often no project at all.
Kelly Brough, who supported the development project and was in the runoff to become Denver’s next mayor, is nevertheless hesitant to embrace state interference. “I can’t say Denver should not control its destiny … I’m just not ready to give it up yet.”
This power struggle is playing out across the country. It’s ostensibly a struggle over housing affordability, but it is also a fight over how we see voters. In polls and interviews, voters express deep empathy for people experiencing homelessness and deep frustration with widespread housing unaffordability. But that’s not the part of us that local government can hear. Instead local politics magnifies our selfish concerns: How will this affect my parking availability? What will this do to my view?
Everyone has a little NIMBY in them. It doesn’t have to be the part that wins.
This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “Local Government Has Too Much Power.”
And why local governments hate it