Op-Ed: Lakewood's 1 Percent Growth Cap a Poison Pill, Not a Panacea

Op-Ed: Lakewood's 1 Percent Growth Cap a Poison Pill, Not a Panacea
On Tuesday, July 2, Lakewood voters are being asked to consider Ballot Measure 200, a measure that, if passed, would restrict residential growth in the city to 1 percent per year. This is not the first time a municipality in the metro area has tried this approach; both Boulder and Golden have similar policies in place. But is it actually a good idea?

First, we have to identify the goals that Ballot Measure 200’s sponsors and concerned Lakewood residents are seeking with this policy, and then determine whether or not the policy is likely to achieve those goals. Their two chief concerns are the rising cost of housing and rising traffic levels. Though these concerns are understandable, Ballot Measure 200 seeks to fix these issues with the wrong tool — a step that is akin to attempting to climb up a tree with a shovel rather than a ladder.

Ballot Measure 200 makes these mistakes: It misdiagnoses the cause of rising costs as a result of increased development, and it misprescribes development restrictions as the cure for both housing and traffic issues.

As it turns out, housing supply is not the cause of rising housing costs — it is the symptom of rising housing demand. Limiting housing supply only serves to drive up housing costs. To see the outcome of a supply-side limiting strategy in action, one only needs to look to Golden, where today the 1 percent growth restriction is a contributor to the fact that the median list price for homes is a staggering $629,000, and the median rent rate is listed at $2,468 per month. If you want to address affordability, you need to shape housing development rather than restrict it. Appropriate policies for this approach include passing inclusionary housing ordinances that require developers to make a certain percentage of new units affordable, creating affordable housing development funds, and passing other developer regulations or incentives. On top of the 1 percent residential growth restriction, Ballot Measure 200 goes a step further to restrict affordable housing by limiting the development application period for such housing to just two months out of the year — further illustrating that the measure isn't truly designed to increase the supply of affordable units.

Traffic, counter-intuitive though it may seem, also increases when the local housing supply is restricted. Of Golden’s 25,000 employees, 13,540 commute from out of town. Today, of Boulder’s 104,000 workers, 56 percent (nearly 60,000) commute from less expensive neighboring municipalities every day. Essentially, growth restrictions help keep these cities from housing the very people they depend on to keep their cities running —forcing them instead to make the long commutes that clog roads. Data aside, I encourage anyone who supports Ballot Measure 200 for traffic-mitigation-related reasons to conduct the unpleasant experiment of driving to and parking in Boulder during rush hour, and see for themselves whether growth limitations limit traffic.

The reason a 1 percent growth restriction doesn’t work as well as many would like it to is simple: anti-growth policy doesn’t actually stop growth — it simply offloads growth to the surrounding area. But the demand for that housing — associated with job opportunities (the sign of a good economy) stays, meaning that a large portion of the people you exclude still end up spending the majority of their day in your town and on your roads.

If Lakewood voters wish to address their (quite valid) concerns about traffic and affordability, they should pressure their elected officials to offer proactive policies that specifically address those issues. This Tuesday, I hope that voters recognize a 1 percent growth restriction not as a panacea for these issues, but rather as the poison pill it is.

Jonathan Cappelli is the executive director of Neighborhood Development Collaborative, a collaborative of non-profit housing organizations in metro Denver, and the founder of urban policy consulting company Cappelli Consulting. He grew up in Rifle and has lived in Denver since 2011. He received his BA in Political and Environmental Science from St. Olaf College, and his MA in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Denver.

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