Housing crisis: A fight ignites over density in one metro area suburb

ENGLEWOOD — Amid a raging statewide debate over housing availability and affordability, a small city on Denver’s southern doorstep has taken the fight to a whole new level of discord: throw the bums out.

A group of citizens is targeting more than half of the seven-member Englewood City Council for ouster, citing the elected leaders’ support of “high-density housing projects negatively impacting adjacent neighborhoods,” according to recall petitions filed with the city.

They also accuse the four council members — Mayor Othoniel Sierra, Joe Anderson, Chelsea Nunnenkamp and Cheryl Wink — of backing “prolific use of accessory dwelling units throughout the city.” The end result of all that increased density in this suburb of 33,000, the critics argue, is “irreparable damage to established neighborhoods” in Englewood.

Englewood has been on a condo and apartment-building tear in the last couple of years. After not approving any permits for such housing types in 2018 and 2020, the city greenlighted projects encompassing 479 units in 2021. As of last summer, it had approved another 231 units and had permits for another 912 condos and apartments under review.

“They’re trying to sell it to us on the basis of affordable housing,” said Kurt Suppes, a 40-year city resident and head of the Recall and Restore Englewood committee behind the ouster effort. “All it does is create more traffic, lower the value of the homes nearby and it doesn’t fit with the neighborhoods.”

Sierra, the mayor, understands why long-time residents might be protective of their neighborhoods as is, but he’s mystified as to why there is such fervor against a certain segment of the council. The city’s elected leaders, he said, have simply been discussing “how to increase housing supply due to the affordability crisis in Englewood and the region.”

“Apparently, the recall petitioners felt just having the discussions was reason enough for a recall,” he said.

In fact, the council two months ago decided to table a proposal to allow duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in areas of the city zoned for single-family homes. But that hasn’t stopped the recall campaign, the mayor said.

“If having discussions about major issues facing the entire metro area could result in a recall, it could affect future councils from discussing options to address affordable housing or any other pressing issue for that matter,” Sierra said.

The citizen group has until July 6 to gather signatures for the recall petitions against the mayor and three council members, who they say have been most proactive on the density issue on council. A recall election would have to be held within 60 to 120 days of the petitions being deemed sufficient by the city clerk.

Last week, the petition against Nunnenkamp was determined by Englewood’s clerk to be ripe for a spot on a recall election ballot. The 34-year-old councilwoman said she’s the only person on the council who’s bought a house in Englewood in the last decade, and has first-hand experience with how difficult it is for first-time homebuyers trying to negotiate a metro housing market where the median home price shot from $231,400 in 2011 to more than $600,000 10 years later.

“Do we want to embrace thoughtful and incremental change that unlocks opportunity for all our residents while preserving what we love most about Englewood?” she said. “Or do we want to resist all change in favor of the status quo?”

The battle over density in Englewood is a microcosm of the many debates that have sprung up in recent years across the state as elected officials grapple with how to deal with Colorado’s housing crisis. The Colorado Housing Affordability Project calculated that the construction of housing units dropped from an average of 48,000 a year in the decade preceding 2007 to around 26,500 annually in subsequent years, “even as employment and net migration continued to grow.”

“That is at least 21,000 homes each year that didn’t get built,” the report stated.

More than two dozen measures with direct ties to housing were contemplated by lawmakers in the 2023 legislative session. While many of those bills passed, several major ones didn’t, including one dealing with just-cause evictions and another that would have enacted sweeping statewide land-use reforms with a focus on the construction of denser communities.

According to an Englewood housing assessment report done last year by Root Policy Research, 46% of the city’s housing stock is multi-family residential while 53% is single-family homes. That compares to a 57% single-family home breakdown in Arapahoe County and a 59% proportion of such housing in metro Denver as a whole.

“The median market value of Englewood homes tripled since 2000, with sharp gains in just the last 10 years,” the report states, noting that the median home price in the city reached approximately $600,000 last year.

For Nunnenkamp, those price escalations mean Englewood has to at least consider other ways of housing people, including increasing density in the city.

“It’s important to me that we represent all constituents across the housing spectrum, including renters, longtime homeowners, new residents, homebuyers and those unhoused,” she said.

But at what cost, Suppes asks.

“It appears the city council doesn’t care what homeowners and renters think,” he said. “They are pursuing their agenda and the agenda they are pursuing is greater density in the city.”

Opposition to greater density is nothing new in the metro area. Fifteen years ago, neighbors in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood raised objections to the construction of duplexes, triplexes and row houses. And nearly four years ago, Lakewood voters passed a cap on new residential construction in the city that some critics believe has hampered the city’s ability to attract multifamily projects, especially around transit stations.

Gary Kozacek, who has lived in Englewood for more than seven decades and served on the city council in the 1980s, is spearheading a separate citizen petition designed to reverse the city’s approval in April of a proposed 395-unit apartment and townhome project on the vacant Sam’s Automotive site on West Oxford Avenue.

His petition earlier this month was deemed by the city sufficient to send back to council for a reconsideration of their vote or to put on a special election ballot for voters to decide, though a protest filed last week by developer Embrey Partners will first have to be heard on Friday.

“It is our direct neighbor and I have been in the neighborhood for 71 years,” Kozacek said. “The referendum process allows for us as citizens to have our voice heard.”

His petition, he said, has more to do with anticipated impacts from the project, like traffic, noise, air quality and safety concerns, than purely about density. But the issues are interlinked, Suppes said.

“They want all these changes,” Suppes said of the city council. “But they don’t want to take into consideration the impacts.”

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