Mar 5, 2021 | NEWS | By Will Taylor | Photo by Patil Khakhamian

By some metrics, it’s not hard to imagine Colorado Springs as the next big thing.

The population of Colorado’s second largest city has increased by 17.5% since 2010, attributed in part to its heavy military influence, an abundance of outdoor opportunities, and an emerging arts and culture scene.

But the surge of people moving to this fast-growing city at the base of Pikes Peak has led to an increase in housing prices and the cost of living. The situation reflects a phenomenon happening throughout Colorado, with other front range cities like Denver and Boulder showcasing how increased demand and new infrastructure can lead to gentrification and displacement of people with lower socio-economic status.

With six seats up for grabs, the Colorado Springs City Council elections on April 6 provide an opportunity for voters to elect candidates in support of affordable housing initiatives. Colorado College falls in District 3, with parts of the surrounding area extending into District 5.

­­­In 2019, City Council began a comprehensive revisioning of the entire zoning code, an initiative called RetoolCOS, that laid out a plan to modify zoning districts to allow for more development projects.

One route to increased affordable housing is rezoning residential areas to allow for more accessory dwelling units (ADUs). ADUs allow homeowners to build a second, usually smaller living space on their property.

Much of Colorado Springs is zoned as single-family, which means homeowners are not allowed to build ADUs on their property.

In his 2018 State of the City Address, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said one community goal is to “build, preserve and create opportunities to purchase an average of 1,000 affordable units per year over the next five years.”

Since 2016, affordable housing units in the city have increased, on average, by 300-500 units per year, according to city data, falling far short of the mayor’s goal.

But some candidates for City Council argue ADUs aren’t the only path to a more affordable city.

Dave Donelson is an Army veteran and candidate for a seat on City Council to represent District 1 in the northwest part of town. He sees the benefit of ADUs, and wants to increase affordable housing in the city, but he doesn’t necessarily believe rezoning single-family neighborhoods is a good idea.

“When people buy into a neighborhood, they buy into the feel. The ambiance,” Donelson said. “All of a sudden having multiple dwellings on each property, having more cars driving around the neighborhood, it wouldn’t be fair to the people who bought into the feel of the neighborhood.”

Nancy Henjum, a small business owner who is running for a City Council seat in District 5, which is northeast of downtown, believes the city should look to the private sector.

“The city needs to further incentivize responsible development with a private sector that is increasingly willing and able to help,” Henjum said. “External resources, such as HUD block grants and Low-Income Housing Tax credits, need to be further leveraged; we must seek meaningful public engagement about how to use these funds most effectively.”

Henjum wants her kids to be able to afford to live in Colorado Springs and worries about companies leaving the city due to high cost-of-living.

Other Colorado Springs residents are advocating for more variety in zoning laws throughout the city.

Max Kronstadt, a founder of the group Colorado Springs Pro-Housing Partnership, which seeks to mobilize communities to advocate for more affordable housing, said a big push is to allow for different types of housing in more parts of the city. Single-family zones make up nearly 83% of residential land in the Springs, he said. 

Kronstadt believes that the best way to address a shortage of affordable housing is to allow for different types of housing in the parts of the city that are already developed.

And the implications of zoning aren’t just economic, Kronstadt argued.

Single-family zoning originated as a tool to maintain racial segregation in cities by making them more expensive to buy in to, he said, adding that the policy maintains “the exclusionary character” of a neighborhood.

While Colorado Springs has recently made headlines for being one of the best places to live in the U.S., some worry the lack of affordable housing could threaten the city’s ability to attract young and diverse constituents.

“It wouldn’t be hard to keep me here,” said Liam Reynolds, a senior at Colorado College who is also working on the ADU issue. “I am excited about a lot of things going on in Colorado Springs, but I also have worries, most of which trace back to the potential for gentrification and displacement in the Springs.”

From young millennials looking to move to the city to older residents who have lived here all their lives, increasing affordable housing will be an integral step to ensure Colorado Springs is a place for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

One of the ways to address the affordable housing shortage in the Springs could be through legislation.

The upcoming City Council elections, taking place on April 6, will play an integral role in shaping the future of affordable housing in the city.

To quote District 1 candidate Dave Donelson, “the future is bright.”

The question is, for whom?

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