Boulder City Council Says “No” to Suspending Occupancy Limits During Pandemic

Despite a request from Governor Jared Polis, Boulder will not suspend housing occupancy limits for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. In July, the Governor recommended cities with restrictive occupancy limits temporarily relax laws regarding the number of unrelated people who can share a home. But as KGNU’s Roz Brown reports, Boulder City Council could not be persuaded at last night’s meeting.

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Boulder City Councilmember Rachel Friend initiated the motion to temporarily suspend the limits.

“Governor Polis emailed us today saying he appreciated Boulder City Council taking up the issue,” said Friend. “Polis wrote, ‘I fully support your city’s efforts to temporarily suspend occupancy limits until next May, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.’”

Addressing council at the virtual meeting, Nick Grossman urged council to pass Friend’s motion – noting if they did not, this morning’s news headlines could be brutal.

He warned the headline might read: “Boulder Continues Evictions in Pandemic.” He then went on to use the Governor’s request to make his case.

“The governor’s executive order strongly encourages cities like Boulder that limit the number of unrelated people who can live together to eliminate those restrictions so homeowners can rent or give rooms to people who need housing,” said Grossman.

The rejection of the Governor’s request comes after a citizen initiative to overturn Boulder’s occupancy limits failed to reach the November ballot. The group, Bedrooms Are People, collected signatures for the issue during the pandemic, only to learn the city had given them the wrong number and the wrong date for submission. Council still had a chance to refer the measure to the ballot but declined to do so. Bedrooms volunteer, Katie Farnan said Boulder’s legacy of exclusionary housing through zoning laws and restrictive ordinances has diminished Boulder’s ability to thrive.

“Our occupancy laws are discriminatory and unintended consequences are playing out right now,” said Farnan. “But I’m also concerned about council’s trust with the community.”

Nick Grossman also chimed in on the trust factor.

“Trust is eroding and people are struggling economically and this is the minimum the city could do to support people during this difficult time,” said Grossman.

In addition to Friend, Councilmembers Adam Swetlik, Aaron Brocket and Junie Joseph wanted to follow the Governor’s suggestion and support the motion but it failed after Mayor Sam Weaver, Mark Wallach, Bob Yates and Mary Young were opposed, with Mirabai Nagle absent.

Boulder’s current housing occupancy limit prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together in most parts of town. And it’s not the only law that has created controversy.  It took nine public meetings, hundreds of public comments and thousands of emails in 2017 before council approved an ordinance to allow more cooperative housing in the city limits. Sarah Campbell had not forgotten.

“I happen to live on a street with one of those god-forsaken co-ops that were supposed to destroy all of Boulder, or something,” said Campbell. “My street is very quiet and my property value keeps going up.”

Last Saturday, Bedrooms Are for People staged a march on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall that attracted more than 100 protestors. The group said they’re not giving up on changing occupancy laws and will be back with another ballot measure. But Neesha Schnepf worries it won’t be soon enough for many residents.

“This has been a brutal summer in so many ways,” said Schnepf. “A lot of people are stressed beyond the breaking point by the pandemic and some people are in danger of losing housing and not having an affordable to live in Boulder.”