What if you were able to get on a plane and fly to a place that would show you how your future might look?
Last week, over 80 community leaders from our area had that opportunity when they traveled with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce on an intercity visit to Boulder, Colorado.
Every two years the chamber organizes a trip to a college town similar to ours. The group, consisting of town, university, nonprofit and business leaders, meets with counterparts in that community to learn how they are dealing with issues we are facing. We get new ideas, new perspectives, and the chance to learn from others’ successes, and failures. Previous trips have ventured to Athens, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Bloomington.
Boulder is slightly larger than Chapel Hill-Carrboro, and is home to the University of Colorado, which is similar in size to UNC. One of the most striking characteristics of Boulder is its cost of housing, and the impact it has had on demographics. It is also one of the more troubling. Boulder’s housing issues and the policies that created them are a cautionary tale for us.
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Like us, Boulder has long had an urban services boundary, which was created to prevent suburban sprawl. That constraint is compounded by a three-story building height limit, put in place to preserve views of the surrounding mountains. So, the city cannot expand outward or upward, limiting the land available for homes.
The unintended result of these policies is predictable. The rural buffer and scenic backdrop, along with Boulder’s other amenities, have both boosted demand and constricted supply. Exacerbating the imbalance is an economic success story of attracting jobs. Housing prices, not surprisingly, have escalated.
Just how expensive has Boulder become?
In 2011, the median house price was $501,000. Over the past five years, that measure has nearly doubled to close to $1 million. Rents are 90 percent higher than the national average.
What does that mean for city residents? Boulder is becoming a one percent community. The middle class can no longer afford a single-family home in Boulder. The situation has become so bad the city of Boulder will unveil a plan next month to add subsidized middle class housing to its long standing low-income housing program.
The parallels to our situation are eerie. We have a rural buffer that limits our supply of housing. We have a quality of life that attracts high demand. Our push to add jobs will add more pressure. Our housing prices are among the highest in the state. Lower-income households can no longer afford to live here.
We also share another troubling characteristic with Boulder. They, like we, have a well organized, powerful minority that opposes growth. Neighborhood NIMBYs (their description) drove Boulder policy for years. Boulder professes the same progressive values as much of Chapel Hill does, but its politics were actually quite conservative. They fought against change.
So are we destined to end up like Boulder, a rich enclave without the diversity that makes our community vibrant and special? Not necessarily. We can learn from Boulder’s mistakes, and a recent success, and change our course.
While Chapel Hill can’t grow out, it can grow up. We can add density in appropriate places to help mitigate our supply and demand problems. But first we must overcome anti-growth opposition which threatens that path with its electoral victories last year.
A recent turn in Boulder may give us heart. Last year, a coalition of environmentalists, social-equity advocates, and the business community joined forces to fight the NIMBYs with a YIMBY coalition – replacing ‘Not’ with ‘Yes in My Backyard.’ They soundly defeated onerous development restrictions and changed the city government’s makeup. The broader electorate agreed to place inclusion above exclusion and smart growth over stagnation.
This intercity visit was an eye opening omen. It was also well timed, since Chapel Hill is at a crossroads. We can revert to restrictive policies and continue on a path to become North Carolina’s Boulder, or we can tackle our underlying problems and create a future that truly reflects the best of what Chapel Hill is all about.
Mark Zimmerman owns a home and real estate business in Chapel Hill. He attended the Boulder visit. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org