Lewis: An admirable goal and a bad plan | VailDaily.com

Lewis: An admirable goal and a bad plan

I volunteer regularly at Habitat for Humanity. I like the cause and believe they have a good model for making homes more affordable for those in need. As almost every local can attest, in the Vail Valley, we are faced with an acute need for more affordable housing.

I was heartened to hear that, at the state level with Gov. Polis, there is a concerted effort to combat the affordable housing shortage in Colorado. The underlying premise is that it all comes down to density.  From a cost perspective, that is a reasonable assumption. Apartments are generally less expensive than townhomes which are generally less expensive than detached homes. So, we need to increase the density to make housing more affordable — that makes sense.

The governor and his staff have an admirable goal and a sound premise. The problem is, frankly, their plan sucks. A major element of the proposal allows the state to usurp local regulations and zoning controls, even in existing neighborhoods. Unfortunately, I have seen this movie before, so I know the ending. Spoiler alert — it’s not good. It ends with existing homeowners getting screwed as the value of their homes falls and everyone suffering as local infrastructure becomes overwhelmed. Here’s why.

We were living in California a few years back when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation called SB 9 that mandated that homeowners be allowed to build accessory dwelling units, which are essentially second homes, on their property. At the time we lived in the Bay Area in a large single-family home neighborhood with an incredibly strict HOA.

While I would be the first one to acknowledge that HOAs can be a bit petty and restrictive, I also understand their usefulness in helping homeowners maintain their investments. I once owned a rural home in an area with no HOA and I quickly learned that the poorly maintained house across the street with two rusted-out cars in the front yard could impact my property value more than I could imagine.

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Over time I have learned to begrudgingly accept HOAs as a necessary evil. The problem in California was that Newsom pretty much blew up our HOA (and zoning rules) with a stroke of the pen. Instead of living in a single-family home community with most homes sitting on ½ acre lots or larger, I now lived in a community zoned for duplexes that could be built to the edge of the adjoining lots. There was, of course, no provision to improve the roads and other infrastructure to handle this increase in population.

Many chose to build these ADUs, and the results were predictable. It lowered property values in the entire neighborhood, especially for homes neighboring a massive ADU that blocked the view or loomed over their backyard. This simply wasn’t fair as existing homeowners had invested based on the community being zoned for single-family homes. Unilaterally and without compensation or recourse the state blew up our neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the Colorado bill has similar provisions that would allow the state, without local input, to change zoning regulations, potentially allowing your neighbor to build a second home in their backyard. We need to solve this problem but hopefully, we can find better ways.

First, solving the issue here in the Vail Valley will not be accomplished with the same solutions that are used in Denver. That is why local control is paramount. Second, any solution, like establishing more high-density residential zones needs to have an associated plan for expanding the infrastructure to accommodate the growth. We also have programs like deed restrictions, Habitat for Humanity, and business-supported housing programs that can help us achieve our objectives. Repurposing underutilized commercial space is another excellent option.

In each of these cases, we address the problem with solutions that have our local needs in mind while having a minimal negative impact on existing residents. Mandating the overdevelopment of existing neighborhoods that lack the needed infrastructure and negatively impacting the value of existing homes is not the solution.

Mark Lewis, a Colorado native, had a long career in technology, including serving as the CEO of several tech companies. He retired from technology and is now writing thriller novels. Mark and his wife, Lisa, and their two Australian Shepherds — Kismet and Cowboy, reside in Edwards.

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