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Chelsea Castellano, left, and Eric Budd are leading Boulder's Bedrooms Are For People campaign. The group, which has advocated for less restrictive housing occupancy limits in the city since 2016, is hoping to get on the municipal ballot for 2021. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

Changing a rule that limits the number of people who can share a home could help ease Boulder’s housing crisis, according to advocates for a ballot initiative set to appear on the local ballot in November.

The citizen-led Bedrooms Are For People campaign has been working since last year on a measure to redefine the city’s occupancy limit based on the number of rooms in a residence. 

Cities and towns generally get to set their own occupancy limits, though there are certain regulations that apply everywhere. The federal Fair Housing Act and its subsequent amendments prohibit housing discrimination, including based on familial status, so housing occupancy limits don’t apply when all of the tenants are related.

Many Front Range municipalities, including Boulder, have absolute occupancy limits, meaning that the number of bedrooms in a house or apartment does not affect how many people can live there. It’s often a matter of zoning. For example, Boulder’s code currently includes slight variations in its occupancy limit based on density. Low- and medium-density zones have a three-person limit, while properties zoned as high density (think large apartment complexes) have a maximum occupancy of four people. 

This story was produced as a result of the TRENDS Reporting Fellowship at Community Foundation Boulder County.

Bedrooms Are For People is asking Boulder to rethink the absolute occupancy limit entirely. Rather than determining a unit’s number of residents based on zoning, each individual unit would be allowed to have as many people as there are bedrooms, plus one more. For example, a three-bedroom house would have a maximum occupancy of four unrelated people.

There aren’t official statistics on how many people are violating the current three-person limit in Boulder, though the Bedrooms Are For People organizers say they currently estimate thousands of people live in over-occupied dwellings, based on the number of people who have shared their own stories and participated in the campaign. 

When Boulder City Council sought to increase enforcement in 2015, many of the 83 people who spoke at a council meeting addressing the matter were opposed to more enforcement because they were personally living over-occupied.

The council could change the occupancy limits, though that appears unlikely. 

The council requested information on occupancy limits in January and is scheduled to discuss the issue later this year. But Mayor Sam Weaver, who said he opposes the ballot measure, doesn’t think the council will pass any occupancy-related ordinances.

Weaver said he would prefer any changes to occupancy limits be linked to affordability measures. As the measure currently stands, he’s concerned only landlords will benefit if the limits are lifted because more legal tenants could justify raising the rent. Colorado prohibits rent control for units that aren’t managed under affordable housing programs.

“Occupancy is portrayed as a silver bullet for a lot of things, and in Boulder, it’s probably not much of a silver bullet for anybody but landlords,” Weaver said.

But Bedrooms Are For People advocates have persisted. When the council rejected the question from the 2020 ballot after city staff gave incorrect guidance on filing deadlines, advocates immediately pivoted to the 2021 election. Earlier this month the campaign gathered enough signatures to qualify the measure for this year’s municipal ballot. Some signatures still must be verified, and more will come in before the June 4 filing deadline, but many have been automatically verified through the city’s new digital petitioning system.

An opportunity for flexibility

The ballot measure’s proponents argue a city like Boulder, a university town with a growing student population, needs more housing options. Restrictions on the height of buildings limit the number of large apartment complexes that are built, while big single-family homes are often not used to their full capacity. Even property owners who are looking to rent out rooms in their full-time residence must adhere to the city’s current occupancy limit.

“It’s not just about affordability. It’s also about freedom of personal choice,” said Chelsea Castellano, one of the organizers of the Bedrooms Are For People initiative.

It’s also about maintaining the city’s population, which slightly decreased in 2017, 2018 and 2019. (County-level 2020 Census data has not yet been released.) Boulder limits its residential development to 1% per year, even as major employers, like Apple, are consistently bringing new jobs to the area. 

In Boulder, there are more than two jobs for every housing unit. On a countywide scale, a 2018 report from the nonprofit Community Foundation Boulder County found that between 2007 and 2017 just one housing unit was built for every 3.5 jobs added in the county. 

“The law is really archaic in how it prevents people from using homes, and a home in Boulder is such a scarce resource,” said Eric Budd, another of the ballot measure’s organizers. “So it really allows more flexibility in housing options overall, which benefits the whole community.”

In many cases it’s more complicated than blaming the tenants. Some Boulder landlords price rental units with the intent to fill every bedroom, whether it’s legal or not, according to the advocates. Violations for over-occupancy can lead to increasingly severe measures, starting with a warning period during which tenants and landlords can voluntarily dissolve the lease. If the lease is not dissolved, the property owner is charged a $100 penalty and tenants must relocate.

Boulder received 99 reports about potential over-occupancy between 2018 and mid-May, with 59 enforcement actions taken in that period, with fewer confirmed violations each year since 2018, city spokesperson Julie Causa said. Most occupancy violations are resolved after a warning, and fines and evictions are very rare, she said. 

Despite a request from Gov. Jared Polis that cities refrain from enforcing occupancy limits until the coronavirus crisis eases, Boulder has continued to investigate complaints.

Occupancy one of many parts to housing discussion

Other Front Range cities are revisiting their occupancy limits as one way to alleviate strained housing markets. 

Greeley is in the process of overhauling its development code, including its two-person occupancy limit. Fort Collins is also working on a new housing strategic plan, which may include changing its three-person occupancy limit.

However, a city’s occupancy limit doesn’t necessarily correlate with average household size. A study commissioned by Denver City Council when it was considering an occupancy limit change looked at housing occupancy limits for other large cities. None of the Colorado cities in the study had an occupancy limit higher than five, with the occupancy limit for all cities ranging between two and eight people. 

Despite the varying occupancy limits in the study, average household size across the 38 cities was almost always between two and three people. Commerce City had the highest average at 3.1 people per dwelling. 

“People are already kind of living the way they naturally want and need to live,” said Laura Swartz, communications director for Denver’s Community Planning and Development department. Denver City Council in February voted 11-2 to increase the city’s occupancy limit to five unrelated people.

“We have a job to do”

The Bedrooms Are For People measure is just the latest battle over occupancy limits on Boulder’s housing landscape. 

It took years of debate and activism before Boulder City Council legalized housing cooperatives, which rely on higher occupancy by definition. What co-op residents cede in individual living space — they share kitchens, bathrooms and other common areas — they make up in affordability, community and the chance to make household decisions based on a consensus of the housemates.

Six months after first considering an ordinance to legalize and regulate co-ops, council finally passed an amended version in January 2017. Prior to the ordinance, co-ops were considered over-occupied units and were subject to tickets and evictions. Since council passed the ordinance, co-ops zoned as low density have had a max occupancy limit of 12 people, while units in other zoning designations have a 15-person limit. 

Yet Budd, a current co-op resident who helped organize for their legalization, said the ordinance is so narrowly drawn that only three new co-ops have been formed since then, and several are at risk of dissolving. He estimates roughly 100 people live in co-ops in the city, compared to the several thousand estimated to live in over-occupied units. 

There’s no one catch-all solution for the city’s housing woes, Budd said. But changing occupancy limits is another way to address the issue and would jibe with the city’s recently-approved Racial Equity Plan, which notes housing policy has significantly influenced who is able to live in Boulder.

“I refuse to live in a city that punishes people for sharing housing, and I’m not leaving,” Budd said. “We have a job to do, and we’re not done with it.”

Lucy Haggard was a TRENDS Reporting Fellow from August 2020 to May 2021 with The Colorado Sun. Email: Twitter: @lucy_haggard