Earlier this month, Lakewood voters passed a controversial rule that limits new residential construction to 1 percent of the city’s existing housing stock each year, with the intent of slowing development that many residents say has gotten out of control. As the entire Front Range struggles with how to responsibly address growth, all eyes—especially of local developers and housing policy wonks—are on Lakewood’s new growth cap. Here’s what you need to know about how the initiative came to be, how the cap will work, and where Lakewood (and, by extension, other metro area cities) will go from here.
The Lakewood Strategic Growth Initiative (aka Question 200) was brought to voters in a special July election as a result of a grassroots, citizen-led campaign started by local public school teacher Cathy Kentner.
According to Kentner, growth became a problem in Lakewood after an altered zoning code was implemented in 2013, which allowed mixed-use and fully residential buildings to be constructed in areas previously designated for office space. As a result, Lakewood—the fifth-largest city in Colorado, with almost 155,000 residents—has experienced a remarkable increase in new, multi-unit buildings (i.e. apartments) in the past few years.
Kentner says she started campaigning for a growth cap two years ago, as residents have been bothered by the construction and concerned that new developments are eating up green space. “On a very small lot next to small single family homes, nearly 30 units [are being put up], where only 12 were allowed before the zoning change,” Kentner says, adding that residents have been complaining to the Lakewood City Council for years about growth, but under the existing laws, the council’s hands were tied.
Advocates for 200 maintain that they don’t want to halt development in Lakewood, they just want it to be slower and more responsible. “It’s not about stopping [growth], but we need a plan for it,” Kentner says.
What Will the Initiative Do, Exactly?
The most notable impact of the initiative is that new residential construction will be limited to whatever 1 percent of Lakewood’s housing stock is. (Apartment buildings have been going up at double that pace.) For example, according to Lakewood’s 2019 Community Profile, the city’s housing inventory is 67,240 units, which means that about 670 new builds would be allowed for this year. In addition to the growth cap, the initiative mandates that Lakewood City Council approve any large development projects under consideration—specifically, residential buildings with 40 or more units.
Who Benefits and Who Loses?
The main target of Question 200 is large, multifamily buildings, and proponents of the measure claim the development of single-family homes in Lakewood won’t be affected. Kentner says over the past few years, new development in Lakewood has been mostly “high-end luxury apartment” buildings, as opposed to single-family homes or affordable apartments, both of which she says Lakewood residents would be happy to have more of—again, as long as they’re built responsibly. “We need to make sure we infill the right projects in the right areas,” she says.
Developers of these large, multifamily projects are likely to be majorly affected by the change, as they will be less likely to build in Lakewood moving forward. And Elizabeth Peetz, vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Association of Realtors—which donated $25,000 to the effort to defeat 200—believes the city’s residents will suffer, too. “There will be unintended consequences for current and potential homeowners: increases in property taxes for existing homeowners, rising rents, and fewer affordable options for potential future homeowners,” she says. Peetz argues that with high demand for housing in Lakewood and new limits around supply, “the people that build housing are only going to build housing where they can make a profit, which means more luxury buildings, less building at that affordable level—which is where we need it most.”
Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, who opposed the measure, told the Denver Post earlier this month that the city still has to work out details about how to implement the new rule, which went into effect immediately. He expressed concerns about affordability of housing in the city, as well as the development projects that are in process or already approved to begin construction. Other critics—including former Denver Council City president Albus Brooks, who tweeted that the measure set “a horrible precedent for the metro area”—worried that the concerns that 200 were meant to address, namely affordability and traffic issues, would only be exasperated by limiting new housing options. The cities of Golden and Boulder have both instituted similar caps, which were successful in limiting growth, but are also considered contributing factors for rising housing prices in those areas.
Larger Cultural Significance
Beyond the arguments about housing stock, rents, and construction disruptions, there’s a significant ideological component to the growth cap. Kentner emphasizes that Lakewood is a suburb, not an urban area—a distinction she believes makes it especially inappropriate to build big, multi-use complexes. “I think Lakewood is a first-tier suburb that values its neighborhoods and open space,” she says. “That’s why people move to Lakewood, and we need to honor that.”
While Denver’s population has increased by more than 20 percent since 2010, Lakewood’s growth has been smaller but not insignificant—from 142,799 residents in 2010 to 154,958 in 2017, according to U.S. Census estimates. Still, Kentner and other residents maintain that the high-rise condos that are prevalent in Denver don’t fit in Lakewood, and hope that the initiative enables all parties tackle development in a smarter way.
“The main need in Lakewood is for single-family homes and smaller homes,” Kentner says. “Starter homes, homes for working families, and homes to downsize into. This initiative encourages those smaller homes and smaller development.”