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Westminster wrestles with housing reform as legislators eye a statewide intervention

Jodi Lovejoy can look out the window of her Westminster apartment and see the mountains of the Front Range. She can track the rolling clouds and watch the weather change over the peaks, something she used to do with her children. The neighborhood is quiet, dotted by mature trees. She doesn’t own the two bedrooms she’s shared with her daughter for the past eight years , but the apartment feels like home.

Still, Lovejoy wishes she could own. She’s grown accustomed to the annual negotiation with her landlord about her rising rent. Last year, she hired a Realtor and explored Westminster’s housing market. But the market was too competitive, the homes she saw needed too much work, the HOA fees too expensive.

A therapist and middle-income earner, Lovejoy decided it wasn’t worth it. She settled in for another negotiation.

“I wanted to retire here. But I’m constantly worrying about where should I go? Because I don’t know that I can stay here,” the 56-year-old said. Her daughter is considering moving out of the state with her boyfriend in search of cheaper pastures. “If they stay, I would like to stay, but I don’t think that my life is going to be secure. It just makes me feel like my homeland has been taken over somehow, and I’m not going to be able to stay. So that makes me feel like — do I even belong in this community?”

Seeking housing solutions

From the mountains to the prairies, Colorado’s housing crisis is squeezing state residents in ways that make drastic choices an all-too-common part of their cost-of-living calculus.

Click here to read more from this series.

The circumstances weighing upon Lovejoy — a tight housing market, high rents, limited options outside of a traditional home — aren’t unique to her. Nor are they unique to Westminster: Like other Front Range cities, the suburb has struggled to address a shortfall of housing units and rising costs that have displaced lower-income residents and limited options for future generations. The city finds itself whipsawed between vocal residents who are opposed to more development and concerned about resources, and a statewide housing crisis that legislators and Gov. Jared Polis are eying with impatience.

Meanwhile, a new contingent on city council, elected in the latest swing of opinion about density and housing, is expected to spur a change in how the community approaches housing as it nears its limit of outward development.

“The story of Westminster is very much like other medium-sized Front Range cities: struggling with affordability, experiencing a housing unit shortfall,” said Peter LiFari, the CEO of the Westminster-based Maiker Housing Partners, an affordable housing developer.

The city faces the same debates over zoning and density as other cities and the state generally, he said. “It’s the story of entrenched, long-standing community members who are not comfortable with the growth trajectory of their city and the state, and how that correlates into housing stock and the decisions that need to be made to be able to deliver housing stock in today’s market environment.”

A recent study of Westminster’s housing needs — alongside interviews with 18 current and past city officials, advocates, renters and developers — describes a city at a crossroads. On the one hand, the study found that median household incomes had risen by 38% for renters and nearly 30% for homeowners in recent years. Homeownership had increased among younger residents since 2012. The cost of rent had actually decreased slightly after recent increases.

“We’ve been working toward increasing our affordable housing for at least 10 years,” said Sarah Nurmela, the city’s mayor pro tempore and a city planner. Though she acknowledged that the city had more work to do, she defended leaders’ efforts to address housing needs while balancing the need to conserve resources, like water, alongside residents’ appetite for development.

But some of the gains Westminster has made have come at the cost of lower- and middle-income residents who’ve been priced out of the city, according to a draft of the study published by the city. Westminster has a deep deficit of subsidized housing for its lowest-income residents, and its senior population is expected to balloon in the coming years.

Like other cities across Colorado and the United States, Westminster lacks the type of middle housing — duplexes and townhomes — that act as stepping stones for people like Lovejoy: middle-income earners looking for a home and the equity it brings. The study’s authors found that 82% of residents surveyed wanted more diverse housing options. But when asked what type of housing they thought the city should prioritize, 64% said single-family homes — the status quo that’s helped fuel the housing crisis. Some expressed “vehement opposition” to anything else.

The study also found that fewer tenants are cost-burdened by their rent than was the case several years ago. But that’s in part because many renters have left.

Even after those departures, more than a quarter of Westminster renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing, requiring many to forgo food, medications or other necessities. Nova Morrow, a 29-year-old from Texas who moved out of Westminster late last month because of its high costs, said they’d pawned jewelry and music equipment to afford their share of a basement unit’s nearly $1,800 rent. A family ring was next on the block.

“I’m exhausted,” Morrow said. “I’m so just depleted because I feel like I have to 24/7 be thinking about money. Where is my next dollar going to come from? How am I going to put gas in my car?”

The city’s approach to housing, several officials said, has swung like a pendulum over the past 10 years. Starting around 2015, the city began to build up its apartment and multi-family offerings after years of stagnant development. More building permits were issued in 2019 than had been doled out in any given year since the early 1990s, and most of them were for multi-family developments, according to data pulled together by one developer. A 2021 study ranked the city as 20th among all U.S. suburbs for apartment building.

Then the pendulum swung back. Suddenly surrounded by construction and facing plans for a new development in the last large empty plot in the city, opposition to density spun up. Amid broader political upheaval in Westminster, nearly half of the city council was replaced in 2021. The Uplands project — a 2,350-unit housing development — was still approved after years of deliberation and public debate, but developers felt a chill in the air. Much of the city is already developed, and the council’s recent 2040 comprehensive plan reduced density and paired future development to water availability.

“(City leaders) were getting a lot of negative feedback. People were saying — myself included — ‘We’ve got enough apartments,’ ” said Bill Christopher, who served as the city’s manager before retiring in 2001. He said that though previously approved development continued, permitting slowed. “At that point, the city had not convinced the electorate that they had enough water for continuing that pace of apartment development. So I’d classify it mainly as political pressure causing them to slow down, (that) was the main concern from the council’s perspective.”

Now, the pendulum appears to be swinging again. Last year’s elections swept in new faces on the council, building expectations across the ideological spectrum for renewed debates about density and development. Jeff Handlin, the president of the developer behind the Uplands, called it the most pro-housing council the city’s had in recent memory.

Armed with the lukewarm results of the housing study, some new council members are jockeying to allow for more middle housing, like townhomes and duplexes, and to amend the comprehensive plan that they say is limiting density when the city needs it most.

“Folks on the prior council who want to reduce density, they want it to be the ’50s and ’60s again,” said Councillor Amber Hott, who was elected late last year. “… They want things to be the way they used to be. They don’t want Westminster to change. But that’s not reality. Things are always changing. If we don’t grow, we die.”

Other officials were defensive of efforts the city’s undertaken and chafed at the suggestion they were anti-housing. Yes, there’d been a slowdown around the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency, amid concerns about the speed of growth and the city’s ability to accommodate new water needs (not to mention headwinds presented by a once-in-a-century pandemic). But that slowdown was a sign of a balanced approach, they said, of responsible and responsive governance. Plus, the Uplands — a massive project with 300 units of affordable housing included — was still approved, despite that same opposition.

“There was some elections in that (time) where the residents, quite frankly, said they wanted us to watch what we’re doing as far as density,” said Councillor David DeMott, who was first elected in 2017 and survived the electoral changes in 2021. “And part of what we did do is making sure that whatever was being built matches our water supply. That was very important for those of us who ran in 2021.”

DeMott and Nurmela both demurred about what the city may do next to address housing, citing an April strategy session with city leaders (a city spokesman declined an interview request for other city officials, citing the coming planning meeting). The city hasn’t enacted an inclusionary zoning ordinance like Denver, which requires a percentage of units in new developments to be affordable. Some officials said the council may require affordability in future projects, and the housing study suggested allowing more accessory-dwelling units and changing zoning rules to allow for more middle housing.

Supporters of reform, meanwhile, have called water and infrastructure concerns a red herring, and several Westminster developers and advocates said the water issue wasn’t as damning as density opponents and some council members have made it out to be. Handlin and David Zucker, another developer who said one of his projects was downsized by the council, both said water was more efficiently used in apartments, condos and townhomes than in sprawling single-family neighborhoods surrounded by thirsty landscaping.

DeMott was adamant that the water issue was fundamental to the future of city development and that there was a base limit to how many residents the city could accommodate.

People who disagree, he said, either “don’t know our water situation as well as I do or they’re, in my opinion, playing politics.”

As Westminster’s leaders watch the pendulum swing to-and-fro, the legislature is extending its hand to halt the paradigm. Together with allies in the General Assembly, the governor has pushed legislation to change local density rules for cities across the Front Range in a bid to build faster and more densely in key areas.

Implicit in that goal is a desire to free needed development from the power of lower resistance, like the kind that’s frustrated Fort Collins’ land-use reforms, sparked recalls in Englewood and kept the pendulum swinging in Westminster.

Predictably, city officials were split on whether the state should have a role in their land use decisions. DeMott said he wanted the state to take a “carrot” approach, encouraging and collaborating — but not mandating. Echoing another familiar refrain that local governments sang last year, he said Westminster leaders “are trying to do our part” and should be given space to do so.

Hott said that she, too, didn’t like the idea of the state stepping into decisions that have long been made by local authorities. But she argued Westminster’s ongoing debate about — and, in her eyes, its lack of a solution for — the housing crisis is exactly why state leaders want to intervene. Westminster, like the entire state, is expected to keep growing in the coming years, and Hott said the city had to meet its changing needs.

Zucker, the developer, said it came down to a question of what Westminster has been and what it needs to be, for current and future residents.

“Westminster has a right and a responsibility — I think that every community does,” he said. “They have the right to say, ‘This is the type of community that we want to be, this is what we’ve been historically, and we want some direct line from our suburban-planning ethos.’ That’s their right, and I don’t think we should feel comfortable taking that away.

“But they also have a requirement,” he continued, “to recognize that some people simply aren’t able to be in the discussion about what Westminster should be: people of color, those of lesser incomes. It’s tough to balance that.”

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