Tony Sanny: Cooperative housing is affordable housing

Cooperative housing is good for Boulder. Do you want working folks earning an average U.S. income to be able to live here? Co-ops are one way to make that happen.

According to Boulder Housing Partners, Boulder loses 900 units of affordable housing every year. As existing homes are sold at much higher prices than they were bought for, fewer and fewer homes are affordable to people with average paying jobs. Rents continue to escalate, with the cost of a one bedroom apartment in Boulder setting a new record of almost $1,600/month in 2017. Annual income of $60,000 is required for that to be "affordable." Full-time work at minimum wage only earns $21,000 a year. We’ve been losing affordable housing rapidly for years. It’s impacting Boulder’s culture.

Our family is lucky to own our home in the Keewaydin Meadows neighborhood. We support co-ops and would welcome a co-op right next door. It’s been painful for us to see how a few vocal critics of affordable housing have made new co-ops difficult to organize. The new co-op on Ingram Court has received especially bad treatment from opponents.

The Ingram co-op uses a big quirky 4,600-square-foot house with 12 bedrooms. Some critics are upset that such an unwieldy house exists at all. They miss the fact that the co-op’s organizer — the Boulder Housing Coalition (BHC) — didn’t build this odd building. The BHC is just trying to put the existing property to good use by using the new co-op ordinance exactly as it was meant to be used.

The BHC’s application for an occupancy of 16 at Ingram caused quite a stir. Normally the new law allows 12 residents in a co-op. The option to ask for higher occupancy is available only to permanently affordable nonprofit co-ops, and it’s specifically there to help increase affordability. The BHC is a nonprofit, dedicated to creating affordable housing. They wouldn’t have made any more money by housing more people in the same house. The BHC was trying to provide affordable housing to families with kids, and couples who want to share a room. Why doesn’t that work within the existing 12-resident limit? Kids don’t help pay the mortgage, and the city’s affordability requirements limit how much rent can be charged. To satisfy both the bank and the city, the co-op needs to house at least 12 paying members.

The BHC heard the neighborhood’s concerns and voluntarily withdrew their application to increase the co-op’s occupancy. Now, if a single parent wants to live at Ingram, they’ll have to rent a whole room for each kid. That’s unlikely to happen. Hopefully after a year or two, when the co-op has demonstrated that it’s a good neighbor, fears will subside and the BHC can go back to Planning Board with a new application and the support of the neighborhood.

Another major obstacle Ingram has faced is a section of the code that’s been interpreted as prohibiting the BHC from even attempting to organize people who might be interested in living in a hypothetical future co-op. Is that even constitutional? Don’t we have the freedom to assemble peaceably, and seek out other like-minded people in our community? How is anyone supposed to organize a co-op if they can’t publicly say they’re doing so?

This ban on publicizing a future possibility meant that the BHC could only start recruiting members in earnest after receiving the co-op license, rather than having the new community ready to move in together as soon as it was legal to do so. As a result, this tiny nonprofit is having to cover thousands of dollars in vacancy costs every month until the co-op is full. Those costs are coming directly out of the affordable housing grant funds the city dedicated to the project.

If you, like most people in Boulder, actually want low-income people to be able to live in our town, what is there not to like about cooperative housing? For decades, Boulder has had co-ops living as good neighbors in various neighborhoods. Co-ops are an efficient re-use of existing housing stock and provide more affordable housing per dollar than most other options.

Co-ops promote environmental sustainability by allowing folks to live in smaller spaces and share resources, by purchasing food in bulk, focusing on alternative transportation, recycling, and composting. Co-ops foster a strong sense of community, not just within their house, but within their neighborhoods.

Let’s help more co-ops get started in Boulder. They’re good for our community.

Tony Sanny lives in Boulder.

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