One of the most heated debates in the city ended in a nearly unanimous vote before city council on Feb 8. Previously, Denver prohibited more than two unrelated people from living together: one of the most restrictive regulations of any major city in the country and a regulation that was often ignored by residents and the city unless someone complained. After months of the city conducting public outreach and gathering community feedback, the proposal was modified from allowing up to 8 unrelated people down to allowing 5. There has been, and continues to be, no limit on the number of related people who can live together.
The measure also addressed homeless shelters, group transitional housing, and residential care facilities (sometimes called halfway houses, though that term is not used as frequently now), expanding and clarifying where they can be located and how they can operate.
Community input and council discussion went past 1 a.m. Tuesday morning with over 150 people signed up to speak. While the sides weren’t absolute, patterns quickly emerged in public comments, with younger residents usually favoring the change and older residents usually opposing. Several older speakers did support the measure however, noting that the realities of home ownership have shifted since they bought their homes 40 or more years ago. Renters usually supported. Most opposition came from homeowners. Speakers are asked, but not required, to say where they live. Speakers from North and West Denver supported the measure. Opposition who stated their place of residence almost universally came from East and South Denver. All five speakers who identified themselves as residents of District 1 (Councilwoman Sandoval’s district) spoke in support, as did a North High School teacher who talked about being priced out of the neighborhood. Only one speaker, who does not live in North Denver, specifically brought up concerns about a transitional housing site in North Denver. Sandoval addressed her concerns, explaining that higher first responder activity on the site was not a sign of crime but rather because first responders are involved with transportation.
Arguments similarly fell along a few lines: philosophically, proponents argued the city shouldn’t have a role in defining a family, citing how Denver’s zoning codes have previously been used to discriminate against interracial families, LGBTQ+ families, and others. Several people spoke about their “found families” of people who were not related by blood but have come to live together and in some cases raise their families together. Proponents repeatedly called the current regulations “racist,” “classist,” and “discriminatory.” Numerous speakers also cited the need to provide transitional housing to help those in need find more secure, permanent housing.
Opponents argued that “single family” homes should be kept that way, raising the concerns of party houses, absentee landlords with a pack of tenants in a small home, and the ever popular “neighborhood character.” As the evening went on, opponents seemed increasingly defensive, recoiling at claims they were racist or otherwise discriminatory. One speaker opposed raised the spectre of “white flight” to the suburbs if the measure passed, which quickly became a buzz on Twitter from proponents, politicos, and journalists alike.
On the logistical side of arguments, proponents talked about skyrocketing rent; numerous speakers discussed how they were already living with multiple housemates, some of whom didn’t know until recently that they were in violation of the law, and others who knew but found the law unjust. Opponents raised concerns about availability of street parking, noise, and a supposed increased impact on infrastructure such as sewage. One proponent, a North Denver RNO leader, responded to claims about home values near transitional housing dropping, noting that he lived near two and his home has continued to rise in value along with the rest of Denver.
By the end, only two councilmembers: Amanda Sawyer and Kevin Flynn, who represent East and Southwest Denver respectively, opposed the measure. Both said they wanted to see the housemate limit and transitional/group housing efforts split from each other. Sawyer, despite her vote against raising the cap, said she herself lives in a home that violates the current unrelated persons regulation.
What’s Your Councilwoman Saying? (All 5 members who represent North and West Denver voted yes):
Amanda Sandoval (D1): “I did not run to represent cars. I ran to represent people. I ran to represent opportunities.”
Jamie Torres (D3): “It is a good start to how we can remove judgement and exclusion from our zoning code.”
Candi CdeBaca (D9): Councilwoman CdeBaca didn’t speak at the end of the meeting prior to the vote. She did tweet several times, including “Damn, who would’ve known that de-segregation efforts might fix our housing crisis overnight with all these threats of flight!”
Debbie Ortega (At-Large): “I’ve never been engaged with a more open and transparent process”
Robin Kniech (At-Large): “I am proud of this final proposal. I’m proud of both the policy changes it makes…people should have access to housing they can afford. This proposal advances that value. People deserve a second chance. If you’ve served your time, you deserve a second chance.”