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Why Boulder Thinks Linkage Fees Will Help Solve Affordable Housing

Ken Lund
Flickr-Creative Commons
Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder is one of the most unaffordable cities on Colorado's Front Range. And like other expensive U.S. cities (think Seattle and San Francisco) it’s brainstorming ways to make housing accessible for low and middle-income folks.

Tuesday night, the city council approved a new tool to do this. It’s called an – wait for it – affordable housing linkage fee. It’s a mouthful. I know. But if you care about affordable housing, (and a lot of people in the Front Range are starting to) you’re probably going to start hearing more about linkage fees.

Here’s the basic theory behind a linkage fee.

Developers who build commercial buildings, for office workers or retail shops, are kick-starting a chain of events that eventually lead to demand for housing. The folks that work in those retail units will want affordable housing. Same with the office workers.

So some cities, Boston and a number of municipalities in the San Francisco Bay Area, have started charging developers a per-square-foot fee to pay for the eventual impacts their developments have on housing demand. That’s an affordable housing linkage fee.

In Boulder, said Susan Richstone, the deputy director for the town’s department of community planning and sustainability, the idea is the same.

“The purpose of the fee is to mitigate some of that demand by having additional funding to provide additional affordable housing in the community.”

Boulder already has an affordable housing program. The funds collected from the fees would go into that, providing more units for low, and middle income families, said Richstone.

There are still some wrinkles to iron out. The proposal passed by the city Tuesday brought much debate, and as a result, some compromises. Boulder plans to phase in the fees so existing projects that didn’t budget for them won’t be unduly burdened, and developers who submit technical documents before Sept. 7 won't have to pay them.

The city will also be studying the issue more to figure out just how much to charge, said Richstone. A 2009 study suggested a range of fees from around $5.50 per square-foot to almost $10 a square-foot.

For perspective, the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View charges perhaps the highest fee in the country: $25 per square-foot on office buildings.

An earlier version of this story stated the city of Seattle had a linkage fee in place. Linkage fees are under consideration in Seattle but have not yet been adopted.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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