Boulder will keep evicting unrelated renters during COVID pandemic, ignoring governor’s request

Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020

Boulder will keep evicting renters who violate the city’s rules on unrelated adults living together despite a recommendation from the governor to suspend occupancy limits during COVID-19. Keeping people housed during the pandemic has become a matter of public health and an area of focus for the state.

Council’s 4-4 vote followed an update on what Boulder is doing to prevent evictions, including spending more than $500,000 on rental assistance and other housing-related aid. Suspending occupancy enforcement did not have an associated cost.

“If we enforce on over-occupancy, that’s an eviction,” said councilman Aaron Brockett, explaining his support. “That’s an additional person or persons who will be living unhoused. That’s exactly the kind of disruption we want to be avoiding.”

The motion appeared doomed from the start. Mayor Sam Weaver proposed skipping the staff presentation and did not allow time for council questions before proceeding to discussion. (City Attorney Tom Carr did ultimately present and council members asked questions during deliberation.)

Read a thread of Tuesday’s discussion

Also unusually, Weaver asked councilwoman Rachel Friend if she was “comfortable moving forward.” Friend proposed the suspension back in July and made the motion Tuesday night. She attempted to address her peers’ unspoken concerns.

“To the extent that people are fearful with moving forward with this … What are the fears?” Friend asked. “Where could we find common ground on this? … What are the guardrails we could put in?”

Such compromising is common on council. Earlier that same night, Mary Young attempted to change a motion on allowing rented e-scooters in order to bring opposing members on board.

No one responded to Friend’s request for compromise on occupancy limits, and none of the members who voted against the measure — Young, Weaver, Mark Wallach and Bob Yates — spoke to their opposition. Questions from Wallach and Yates seemed to suggest that landlords would take advantage of the situation, using it as an “income generator,” in Wallach’s words.

Enforcement would have resumed in May, in the middle of the student rental cycle. Carr said the date was picked for that reason.

There are two ways occupancy is enforced in Boulder. One is at the time a rental license is issued: Staff review advertisements and licenses to make sure properties are not being over-occupied. The other is reactive, with staff investigating complaints.

If staff finds a violation, the landlord can be required to reduce the occupancy by evicting one or more tenants,” notes to council read.

Tuesday’s measure would only have addressed the latter category. Just over half (53%) of complaints result in evictions.

Complaint-based occupancy violations
2017: 24
2018: 12
2019: 24
2020 year to date: 15

A national eviction moratorium applies only to non-payment, so evictions due to over-occupancy could still occur. Carr said staff who “we usually have doing enforcement are doing other things.”

“So we’ve already softened up on occupancy?” Yates asked.

Friend worried that the complaint-based system result in discrimination. Data from the city didn’t include why the complaint was made, as speakers during open comment pointed out.

Many were likely due to noise, trash or parking issues, Alana Wilson said, common reasons cited by proponents of occupancy limits. “We also can’t rule out the possibility that the complainer simply didn’t like the look and lifestyle of the people they were complaining about.”

Read a thread of Tuesday’s open comment

Many complaints do not result in evictions because more than 1,200 properties have been grandfathered in with higher occupancy, according to a staff analysis. The vast majority (86%) were made illegal by two massive zoning changes — in 1974 and 1997 — that reduced the allowed density. This is particularly true on University Hill, with its high share of student rentals.

The Hill’s medium-density residential area has been gradually reduced over the years, giving way to lower-density residential zoning west of 9th and south of College,” staff wrote in notes to council. “The 1974 down-zoning dramatically reduced permitted density west of 9th and south of College. At the time of the 1974 down-zoning there were existing multi- family conversions, which would not be permitted today. … In 1997, there was a down-zoning from high density residential to mixed-used residential, which further reduced permitted density north of University.”

Current occupancy limits were established in 1998. Boulder’s Planning Board at the time suggested a sunset date, but that was rejected by city council upon a recommendation from the city attorney.

Occupancy limits per dwelling by zone (% of city land)
3 unrelated persons:
P, A, RR, RE, and RL (68.4%)
4 unrelated persons: MU, RM, RMX, RH, BT, BC, BMS, BR, DT, IS, IG, IM, IMS (30.6%)

Council has indicated it will add occupancy limits to its agenda, setting up resident working groups and a public engagement process. More details will be discussed at the Oct. 13 study session; 90 minutes has been reserved.

Previous attempts to address occupancy limits have been unsuccessful, including a recommendation from the Housing Advisory Board last year that was roundly rejected. Occupancy limits should be decided by voters, Weaver said at the time.

Governor Polis, through a spokesperson, told the Daily Camera that he respects council’s decision to not suspend occupancy limits but restated his belief that allowing increased occupancy is “an important part of the emergency housing solution for the state.”

Councilman Yates, in his Aug. 20 vote to refer a settlement with Xcel to the ballot, cited Polis’ support for the deal.

“I like this deal because the governor likes it,” Yates said. “I’m a big fan of Jared, so if Jared likes something, I’m going to pay attention.”

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Yah, and how about Steve Tebo with his hands in his right and left pocket in two photos profiled in “Business Plus” section of the Camera today, Mon.? Eviction time Dec., when the last reprieve is up. Hope there’s enough space in the homeless shelter for Steve Tebo’s direct or indirect clients.

    Enough is not enough for some folks at the top.

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