Despite push, Boulder may not halt occupancy evictions

Photo by Matthew Jonas / Boulder Daily Camera

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Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021

Boulder’s new progressive-majority city council came out swinging during their first meeting on Tuesday, promising to overhaul Boulder’s rules on unrelated adults living together, known as occupancy limits, and temporarily halt evictions for over-occupancy in the meantime.

But that pledge is already being forsaken, it seems, as a top official revealed Boulder has not been pursuing action against violators of the city’s occupancy limits for nearly a year — despite city council direction to continue enforcement.

Even before taking office, council members had vowed to work on reforming Boulder’s occupancy limits, which prohibit more than three unrelated adults from living together in most of the city. A citizen ballot measure, Bedrooms Are For People, failed to gain voter approval, but the majority of elected officials — including a staunch Bedrooms opponent — support some changes.

Read: Boulderites rejected changes to occupancy limits. Why is council pursuing reform?

Volunteers with the Bedrooms campaign flooded Tuesday’s council meeting, asking for a six-month moratorium on evictions due to over-occupancy while new rules are written.

“I’m a scientist,” said Ambika Kamath. “I know how hard it can be to collect unbiased data in the best of times … let alone when people do not feel free to speak up out of fear” that they might lose their housing.” Under an eviction moratorium, “people will feel free to come forward and share their best ideas for how we make housing better and more affordable in the city.”

“No one should be afraid of repercussions like getting evicted by being able to participate in shaping policy that will impact them,” added Neesha Schnepf.

On Tuesday, councilwoman Rachel Friend asked for a nod of five — an informal vote to take up a new project or work item — to suspend occupancy evictions at the next meeting November 30. There was broad consensus among council members, and city manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde agreed to share more information before the vote was taken.

Late Friday, Rivera-Vandermyde wrote in a public email that the city had already stopped enforcement, except in cases of life safety. (An example would be a bedroom with improper or inadequate exit options in case of a fire.)

“Given current staffing constraints and the impacts of the pandemic, we have made every effort to only enforce those violations that present life safety concerns,” she wrote. “We will continue to maintain our current practice of focusing specifically on circumstances that present life safety concerns into the foreseeable future.”

In response, Friend emailed that a moratorium was “essentially moot.” She stopped short of rescinding the nod of five request, but wrote that the Nov. 30 discussion “seems like it could be fairly minimal.”

It’s unclear when occupancy enforcement stopped. The previous council in September 2020 voted to continue such evictions, despite a request from Governor Jared Polis.

The city recorded 75 occupancy violations from 2017 through October 2020, according to notes shared with council last year. (The number of renters who lost housing is unknown, as violations are per household.) Only five violations have been identified so far in 2021, according to Rivera-Vandermyde’s email.

Bedrooms organizers believe that represents just a fraction of all the people who have lost housing due to occupancy limits, and that a moratorium is still necessary.

The system is complaint-based, meaning the city investigates in response to calls or emails from community members. The first step is to notify the household of an alleged violation. An on-site visit follows to determine if there are more occupants than legally allowed.

But, as with over evictions, people often leave before that happens, according to Eric Budd and Chelsea Castellano. They receive the notice and choose to leave. Or their landlord receives it and force someone to move out, so as to not to jeopardize the property’s rental license.

They are silently removed from their housing, or they self-evict,” Budd said. “That hasn’t been acknowledged in the city communications” — and it won’t show up in the data.

Kevin McWilliams spoke to the invasiveness of an investigation on Tuesday night. McWilliams, who said he has “lived nearly my entire time in Boulder over-occupied,” has twice been subject to enforcement.

“The first sign we had of it was a yellow code enforcement ticket on our door, and soon enough the police coming through our house, searching our house, looking at numbers of toothbrushes, how many bedrooms there were and so on,” McWilliams said. “It’s really trying to live for a long time in fear of your own city, because you’re living with people you want to live with and trying to make your situation affordable.”

It’s not clear if the city could identify life-safety violations without inspections (other than inspections at the time a rental license is issues). Bedrooms organizers and volunteers insist that, without a moratorium, those most impacted won’t be involved in the eventual process to update occupancy rules.

We have known so many people that have been enforced upon,” Castellano added. “People will not come out to speak on the issues if they are over-occupied.”

There is precedence for a temporary timeout. Boulder allowed illegal co-ops to remain in place while rules were being written from 2015 to 2017. That experienced showed how necessary legal immunity can be.

There were retaliatory complaints against people who were in favor” of legal co-ops, Budd said. “Residents in the community called the city and tried to get people evicted.

“We have to realize these power dynamics are at play for people in insecure housing.”

What’s next for new city council?

Along with newly elected officials come new priorities. City council members will reveal theirs at a Jan. 11 study session, and a Jan. 21-22 retreat will (largely) determine what Boulder will work on for the next two years.

Council meetings will stay virtual for now, given the wide community spread of COVID. Meetings may move to Thursdays at some point in the next year. Rivera-Vandermyde promised to bring back a possible timeline in December.

Upcoming meetings

Tuesday, Nov. 30
Public hearings on:

  • Budget appropriations
  • Election results
  • Concept plan for 2054 Spruce

Tuesday, Dec. 7 – study session
Financial strategies for climate initiatives
Overview of racial equity work
Update on snow and ice strategy

Tuesday, Dec. 14
Fracking rules (public hearing)
Vision Zero update
Discussion on council emails

Tuesday, Jan. 4
Staff workplans
2020-2021 accomplishments
Board/commission feedback

Tuesday, Jan. 11 – study session
Council member workplan proposals

Friday, Jan. 21 – Saturday, Jan. 22
Annual retreat – council agenda and priorities set

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Did Rachel Friend, in fact, ask for a nod of five? That would normally commission a serious working effort by staff. Yet in her hotline email, Friend says “Based on our Council’s “no surprises rule,” and a desire to give staff and community members time to weigh in, I requested we hold off consideration of the request that evening, and asked our Council’s agenda-setting committee (CAC) to schedule a discussion of the request for a future meeting.” That sounds more like a “let’s think about this a bit more before commissioning an effort.”

    Likewise, the opening statement in this article seems inaccurate or, at the least, misleading, stating, “Boulder’s new progressive-majority city council came out swinging during their first meeting on Tuesday, promising to overhaul Boulder’s rules on unrelated adults living together, known as occupancy limits, and temporarily halt evictions for over-occupancy in the meantime.” Friend’s note, again, seems to contradict that there was a “promise … to temporarily halt evictions for over-occupancy in the meantime.”

    • Hi, Stuart. Great questions! Rachel Friend did ask for a Nod of Five, at the next meeting (hence her comments about no surprises). There is/was consensus among a majority of council for that and occupancy limit reform generally. However, NRV’s email came out *after* that meeting, so it’s unclear if attitudes have changed in light of the new information about enforcement. Friend’s note was sent after NRV’s email, in response to it.

      Apologies for any confusion. Thanks for asking! – Shay

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