Friday, Sept. 24, 2021 (Updated Saturday, Oct. 9)
Shall the City of Boulder expand access to housing by allowing all housing units to be occupied by a number of people equal to the number of legal bedrooms, plus one additional person per home, provided that relevant health and safety codes are met?
What it means
Should Boulder change its current occupancy limits — 3 or 4 unrelated persons per home, no matter its size — to be tied to the number of bedrooms? Occupancy of unrelated persons citywide would then be equal to the number of bedrooms plus one person. (So a three-bedroom house could hold four unrelated people, a four-bedroom house five people, and so on.)
Who is supporting
This is the result of a citizen petition sponsored by a group of the same name (Bedrooms Are For People), a collection of Boulderites focused on housing access. The group formed in 2020 and gathered 5,235 signatures. A mid-term rule change prevented Bedrooms from qualifying for the ballot that year. In 2021, Bedrooms became the first petition hosted on the city’s new online system, collecting 3,525 digital signatures.
As of Oct. 5. View filing
- Boulder Chamber
- Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA)
- OUT Boulder County
- Boulder Housing Coalition
- Colorado Working Families Party
- Sierra Club
- CU Student Government
- Showing Up For Racial Justice
- Boulder Area Labor Council
- Boulder Democratic Socialists of America
- Communications Workers of America (CO/WY States Council)
- United Campus Workers Colorado
- New Era Colorado
- Together Colorado
- 350 Colorado
- Boulder Progressives
- Open Boulder
- Better Boulder
- Boulder Weekly
- Daily Camera
Who is opposing
One group has officially filed to campaign against Bedrooms Are For People. NO on Bedroom$ is headed by two Boulderites with connections to past slow-growth causes and groups, including opposition to legal co-ops.
As of Oct. 5. View filing
Homeowners on University Hill have also publicly opposed the measure. Former city council member Andrew Shoemaker, who was a party to Bedrooms’ lawsuit against the city last year, is among them.
Slow-growth political group PLAN-Boulder is also opposed to this measure. Former and current chairs have donated to NO on Bedroom$, as have leaders of Safer Boulder and Forward Boulder.
What you need to know
Boulder restricts the number of unrelated adults who can live together. Depending on the density of the area, three or four unrelated adults can legally share a home, regardless of its size.
3 unrelated persons in these zones: P, A, RR, RE, RL
68.4% of city land
4 unrelated persons in these zones: MU, RM, RMX, RH, BT, BC, BMS, BR, DT, IS, IG, IM, IMS
30.6% of city land
Any number of family members can live together, and families may have two non-related people living with them. The city also has an expansive definition of family that includes relations by blood, marriage or adoption.
The city also exempts co-ops. More than 1,200 properties were also grandfathered in when current occupancy limits were put in place in 1998.
Occupancy limits are common throughout the United States, particularly in college towns as a way to mitigate the impacts of student populations on other residents and local housing markets. Some states and cities have outlawed occupancy based on familial status (see more below).
What about affordability?
Both sides claim affordability: Opponents say increased occupancy will lead to higher rents, and supporters say sharing homes offers more affordable options. Comprehensive research on occupancy limits and affordability is scarce, but most studies acknowledge that sharing homes does reduce costs.
One oft-cited report out of Denver, which compared occupancy regulations across 50 U.S. cities, confirmed this.
“We have not found a correlation between increasing occupancy limits and higher home prices,” wrote Laura Schwartz, in response to emailed questions. “It’s usually the opposite. Being able to share housing costs with roommates helps lower the cost of keeping a roof over your head.”
A study in Austin found no correlation between occupancy limits and housing costs. That study was cut short before completion, according to the author.
“The extent to which affordability, as defined by median or average rent, was impacted was too difficult a question to answer given the short window,” wrote Brian Kelsey in response to emailed questions.
Why you might want to vote for this
This measure could add to the housing supply without additional construction or costs. However, the size of the impact is unclear: Just because people can rent out empty bedrooms doesn’t mean they will — something proponents point out in response to fears that neighborhoods will become overrun by renters.
There’s not much evidence to suggest that is true. A Denver study of 50 U.S. cities found that average household sizes remain between two and three individuals regardless of how many people are legally allowed to live together.
Legalizes existing activity
The most impactful outcome of the measure will likely be on those already living over-occupied. The city evicts renters who are living over-occupied to achieve the legal occupancy: If five people are living in a home and only four are allowed, one person has to leave.
Enforcement is complaint-based, most often reported by neighbors who suspect violations. Proponents argue that this discretion leads to discrimination; people who currently or previously lived over-occupied report avoiding interacting with their neighbors, not registering to vote and/or not becoming involved in city politics to avoid arousing suspicion that could lead to a loss of housing.
It also leads to an imbalance of power with landlords. Over-occupied renters say they are less likely to ask for repairs or dispute unfair practices if they know they are at risk of losing their housing.
It’s unknown how many persons are currently living over-occupied in the city. From 2018 to 2020, 54 violations were found in response to complaints; 53% of complaints did not result in violations, according to the city.
Proponents argue that the government should not be involved in defining what family is or dictating how and with whom private residents live. Even with the city’s broad definitions of family, Boulder’s law is not inclusive of more alternative lifestyles and non-traditional relationships.
Many more people are choosing to live with “chosen” family and/or remain unmarried. Boulder does provide for domestic partnership that entitles couples to the same occupancy rights as marriage; critics say these processes are intrusive and onerous for the privilege of living together.
Several states have outlawed occupancy based on familial status, including California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Ohio, New Jersey and Iowa.
Additionally, advocates say occupancy limits like Boulder’s infringe on personal property rights. Such rules apply beyond rental properties; even private homeowners residing in their own houses cannot exceed established limits.
Health and safety maintained
The proposed occupancy limits are actually more restrictive than federal guidelines, which generally recommend no more than two people per bedroom. (Researchers have argued that even these more permissive limits are based on a limited, European, middle-class view of family and living situations, and based on outdated science from the 1800s.)
Tying occupancy to the number of bedrooms isn’t super common, but other cities have linked it to the size of the home rather than familial status. Plus, this measure would not replace the city’s current occupancy limits: It would simply add this home size-based definition to the list of acceptable occupancy. Local and federal laws on familial occupancy will be maintained.
Why you might not want to vote for this
More people, more problems
Opponents of increasing occupancy often point to issues with parking, trash and noise in areas with higher populations of student renters. They worry these issues will increase if more students are allowed to live in existing homes.
Proponents counter that such nuisances (as they are referred to in city code) should be dealt with by properly enforcing existing laws around parking, trash and noise. Boulder does plan to strengthen its nuisance ordinance citywide following the University Hill riot.
The CU of it all
University rental markets differ from “typical” rental markets in that landlords do tend to charge by the bedroom. The area surrounding CU does have higher rents, on average, than the city as a whole.
There is also some concern that smaller single-family homes could be demolished and replaced with larger homes containing multiple bedrooms, for the express purpose of becoming rental properties. A study in Austin found that eight homes a year, on average, were being scraped and rebuilt as larger structures.
However, the author did not distinguish between additional bedrooms and additional square footage. Boulder has also seen a high number of larger homes replacing older, smaller ones, and the city’s average household size has been in decline since 1970. Renter-occupied homes also had fewer people than owner-occupied dwellings in 2010, according to census data.
2010 average household size
Owner-occupied: 2.42 persons
Renter-occupied: 1.97 persons
Average number of people per household
City of Boulder
It’s also unclear how many homes may be able to rent out or construct additional bedrooms. There are 7,000 legal landlords (meaning they hold rental licenses) in Boulder. Together, they own 20,000 units. But 92% of landlords (6,500) own two or fewer units. There may be an argument that “smaller” landlords are less likely to have the means to add on to or reconstruct a home, or that they could be more responsive to the concerns of the neighborhood than “larger” or corporate property owners.
6,500-13,000 rental units owned by landlords controlling 1-2 units
7,000-13,500 rental units owned by landlords controlling 3 or more units
Council could make changes to the new occupancy ordinance so long as the intent of the voters is honored. Staff and elected officials are already discussing ways to mitigate impacts, from aforementioned nuisance ordinances to prohibitions on additional bedrooms being built specifically for the purpose of increasing rental income.
Ames, Iowa, limits the number of rental properties in a given geographic area. Boulder may consider this; the city already employs saturation limits on accessory dwelling units.
- HOUSING OCCUPANCY STANDARDS: INSCRIBING ETHNICITY AND FAMILY RELATIONS ON THE LAND– Journal of Architectural and Planning Research
- Sightline Institute Report – “Three Keys to Affordable Communities”
- Definition of Family Zoning Study
- Fair Housing Working Group Report
- Center for American Report on Expanding Definitions of Family
— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle
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Elections Bedrooms Are For People Boulder citizen petition city council city of Boulder COVID-19 eviction Governor Jared Polis homeowners housing housing affordability landlords occupancy limits pandemic petitions PLAN-Boulder property owners rental units renters Uni Hill University Hill