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State lawmakers hollow out Polis’ flagship housing legislation

The Rocky Mountains are seen behind the Denver skyline in 2016. Bidding wars over houses have become the norm in many cities, including Denver.
Charlie Riedel
A bill that would have changed zoning rules across Colorado to make way for increased housing density has been fundamentally changed with a new amendment. Land-use requirements for cities and towns, including Denver, pictured here, were all but removed from the measure.

A new amendment that fundamentally changes Senate Bill 213, the land-use bill backed by Gov. Jared Polis and many Democratic lawmakers, was introduced late Tuesday and approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday morning. The bill now looks significantly different.

The original bill intended to increase housing density by mandating that Colorado cities and towns change zoning rules to allow for more multi-unit housing. Previous amendments have already rolled back those requirements for cities, requiring them to allow for multi-unit housing in 30% of areas zoned for single-family homes and near transit hubs, and for resort towns, which would be able to choose from a list of housing strategies, some of which they are already using.

At a whopping 39 pages, the new amendment goes even further, leaving behind only a shadow of the original bill. It completely removes all of the state-level zoning mandates and replaces them with a new state multi-agency board that would assess housing needs across the state. The multi-agency board would be responsible for assessing the housing needs of specific communities and would advise them on strategies to make housing more affordable. It would be housed in the Department of Local Affairs and would also help communities across the state plan and implement strategies to make housing more affordable.

“We've heard a lot of concerns,” bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Dominic Moreno told KUNC. “We are obviously trying to be responsive to those concerns, and I think the amendment does achieve that.”

Without the new amendment, Moreno said the bill did not have the votes to pass the Appropriations Committee. The addition is an attempt to win over others who are opposed to the bill, including many of the state’s cities, towns and counties. Much of the opposition was based on the original bill’s infringement of local control of land-use rules.

The Colorado Municipal League, which represents the state’s cities and towns, has been strongly opposed to the bill from its introduction, but says the amendment is a step in the right direction.

“We like the amendment,” the group’s executive director, Kevin Bommer, said. “It just focuses on the positives, doing the statewide housing needs assessment that everyone's been asking for, and ensuring that DOLA is not a regulator, but the Department of Local Affairs is actually assisting local governments.”

Colorado Counties Incorporated and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, which also oppose the bill, say the amendment is encouraging, but have not officially changed their opposition to the bill.

The amendment’s extensive changes are a blow to Gov. Polis, who not only backed the bill, but touted it as his administration’s flagship housing policy earlier this year.

“The governor isn’t interested in playing politics with this. He’s focused on ensuring that solutions are driven by the data and will actually work to reduce housing costs,” Conor Cahill, press secretary for Polis, said. “Our office, in partnership with the legislature, held over 150 meetings on this landmark bill to create more housing Coloradans desperately need prior to introduction. We look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly and stakeholders on behalf of the real Coloradans demanding solutions as the bill moves through the process.”

Majority Leader Moreno doesn’t consider it a defeat, however, and still has hope for state-level land-use reform in the future.

“I don't see it necessarily as a failure, more as it may be a longer term conversation,” he said. “Zoning reform is going to be a topic in future legislative sessions. Hopefully, we'll be able to work with our local partners to figure out a way forward on that.”

The amended version of Senate Bill 213 is now headed to the Senate floor, with a preliminary vote expected in the next few days.

I’m the Statehouse Reporter at KUNC, which means I help make sense of the latest developments at the Colorado State Capitol. I cover the legislature, the governor, and government agencies.