It’s a cliche to say that Denver’s housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable to average working-class people. Having participated in the Denveright process over the last three years, I have repeatedly heard the concerns over involuntary displacement and gentrification. In this part of my #cityforall series of posts, I’d like to focus on some common themes in this discussion.

One common thread is blaming the rapid growth in Denver for increased cost of housing. At the first glance it seems that development drives up the cost of housing as existing residents get pushed out for the benefit of more affluent populations who move here from out of state. So if we stop development, people will stop moving here, right? No, unfortunately this is not correct. Unless we build a wall around Denver and start requiring visas, people will still move here. The amazing quality of life and economic opportunities will always attract migration. But without additional housing supply, existing homes and apartments will become even more expensive. Limited supply of housing will drive up housing costs and soon the only people who will be able to move or stay here will be the extremely wealthy. San Francisco, and locally Boulder, are good examples of places that limited their development through various land use regulations and created a severe home shortage causing prices to skyrocket.

Another popular idea is rent control. We can limit growth and keep Denver affordable if we regulate rents, right? Wrong again. Not only is rent control prohibited at the state level in Colorado, but also it does very little to make homes more attainable. In fact, the rent-controlled cities are some of the least affordable in the US. Simply put, rent control increases demand for housing as more people are able to afford to live independently but does not address the supply. When demand grows and supply stays the same, it creates a housing shortage. Rent-regulated apartments have a low-to-none turnover rate (people hold on to them despite their need for housing space changing over time). So low supply and low turnover make affordable housing unavailable to most. And places like New York are unaffordable despite a long tradition of rent regulation.

This week’s “architectural doodle” explores (in section) how multi-unit structure addresses the street and alley.
Sketch of how multi-unit structures address the street and alley

So what can we do to make Denver more affordable? In a market economy, if the supply meets the demand prices stabilize and housing becomes more affordable. While this is probably an oversimplification and we will always need subsidies to provide below-market-rate housing for some demographics, building more housing makes housing more attainable. The trick is to provide diverse housing options for diverse populations so people of all backgrounds, lifestyles, and incomes can choose where and how to live.

For decades, our urban neighborhoods in Denver have been limited to a specific building type—single family homes. Through single-unit zoning (SU), we limited supply of housing in these areas. As a result, these neighborhoods become unaffordable and subject to redevelopment with large McMansions that cater to the most affluent residents. Providing more supply of housing in the neighborhoods will make them more affordable. To accommodate anticipated growth and prevent further displacement, Denver should consider eliminating single-family zoning. Instead, the zoning code should allow multi-unit structures that are respectful of the scale and historic urban design patterns of the neighborhoods.