Denver’s population boom brings with it rising rent and housing costs, and residents adding roommates or renting out a room to cut costs can quickly run afoul of the law.
Among major American cities, Denver stands alone when it comes to how many unrelated people can live in the same home: two.
Evan Derby stuck around to look for work after graduating from the University of Denver last year, and illegal arrangement is about the only reason he can afford to stay. He shares a home in Washington Virginia Vale in southeast Denver with five roommates to keep rent to an affordable $630 a month.
Many of Derby’s close friends left town.
“They absolutely couldn’t afford to live in the city during the pandemic,” Derby said. “I haven’t gotten to see five or 10 of my favorite people in a year because they can’t live here.”
High housing costs and a competitive market have even city officials scrambling to find solutions for those priced out, and their dual-pronged proposal that’s up for a public hearing and final vote from the City Council on Monday night would offer people like Derby a legal, affordable avenue.
The median household income for Denver is $68,592, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and rule of thumb is that no more than 30% of your gross income should go toward rent. The median price for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,580 in September — about 28% of a household’s pay. Considering 13% of Denver’s population sits below the federal poverty line (about $27,000 for a family of four), that income-to-rent ratio is much more difficult to find.
One part of the proposal would allow up to five unrelated people to live together in the same home. The other part takes on a different, but related, issue: expanding the number of places where residential care facilities like nursing homes and community corrections facilities can be located from only industrial areas to commercial corridors like those along Colfax, Broadway and Federal boulevards.
There’s vehement opposition to both proposed changes, arguing they would irreparably damage Denver’s neighborhoods. That sentiment is perhaps personified best by the group Safe and Sound Denver, members of which say they fear for the sanctity of their neighborhoods and that now is not the right time for such a major change.
But city planners in Denver and the comparable metros of Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City agree many of the concerns are overblown. And Derby believes the opposition is coming from a place of privilege, people who fail to consider future generations who want to live and work in Denver.
“It’s frustrating to hear people who already own homes, who really are already set say that … we’re a party house and a nuisance to our neighbors,” Derby said. “That’s really not true.”
The council appears likely to approve the proposals and a spokesman for Mayor Michael Hancock said he also supports the move. If it’s done, it’ll change the lowest group-living limits for a metro this size in the U.S., end decades-old zoning codes and give people who are transitioning back into society a better chance at turning their lives around.
“Up to par with … peer cities”
Much of Denver’s zoning code predates World War II, Senior Planner Andrew Webb said. And the cap of two unrelated people came in the 1980s after a same-sex couple sued the city in the hopes of equal treatment. Before that only a husband and a wife could legally live in a home, he said.
Zoning codes in many ways legalized discrimination as Denver grew, keeping lower-income residents separate from single-family homes, said Laura Swartz, communications director for Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development.
“Our whole system is out of date and this is an effort to try and bring us up to par with our other peer cities,” Webb said.
No other major cities in the country have a limit as low as Denver’s, Webb said. In Colorado, only Englewood follows suit. Boulder, Fort Collins, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City allow three unrelated people to a home, according to research from Webb’s office.
And Salt Lake City Planning Director Nick Norris says even three is too low in his metro, which added nearly 12,000 people between July 2019 and July 2020 — more than a fifth of the state’s total population growth in that time. Rents in Salt Lake County have nearly doubled from their average of $650 a month in 2000, according to the Deseret News.
“It’s becoming harder and harder for people to find a place,” Norris said.
And more cities on the Front Range, like Arvada, Castle Rock, Colorado Springs and Longmont, allow five unrelated people to a home, Webb said.
Austin, Texas — itself the product of expansive growth in the 2010s — allows four unrelated people to live together near the University of Texas campus and six people everywhere else in the city, according to Austin’s principal city planner, Greg Dutton. The city imposed the lower limit near campus in 2014 after students were found cramming into apartments in what became known as “stealth dorms” to offset the rising cost of living.
Since then, Dutton said, he’s heard few concerns about living arrangements throughout the city.
But no matter the limit, Webb said, the house size remains about the same.
On average, 2.31 people live in Denver homes, while in Seattle, which tops the scale with a limit of eight, 2.12 people live in an average home, according to data collected by Webb’s office.
“There is no indication that there will be a sudden explosion of houses of unrelated people causing havoc in neighborhoods,” Webb said.
Webb estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, of homes in Denver already hold more than two unrelated adults. A more precise estimate isn’t available, he said, in part because violations are tracked only by complaints. City staff doesn’t actively investigate possible offenses. And little would change for landlords, who would not be required to accept more people on their properties, Webb said.
As the pandemic arrived, Flor Marquez had trouble making rent and went to live with four other people in what they called “The House of Abundance” — each paying about $650 a month.
“I’m a small business owner, we had to close our shop down, all of my income froze,” Marquez said.
Without that home, she said she would have had to move back in with her parents out of town. She said it’s not “unique to younger folks — it’s grown folks, families, elders, it’s intergenerational.”
People who oppose the proposals also say the move wouldn’t actually lower rents or mortgages so much as it would encourage more people to cram into existing homes. Councilman Kevin Flynn echoed that sentiment in December.
“These zoning changes will not make housing more affordable and will degrade the quality of life in many affected neighborhoods,” Congress Park Stephen Eppler wrote to the council and the mayor.
Similarly, Hampden resident Joe Baird wrote that he and his wife are concerned the changes would overcrowd parts of the city.
“We are concerned this amendment will threaten the safety of our neighborhoods, families with children, schools and elderly residents,” Baird wrote. “The proposed changes may very well result in greater exposure of our children to drug use — more than currently exist.”
But Sarah Wells said the illegal co-op she’s run in Capitol Hill since 2015 isn’t crowded, even with eight people and a baby in the 4,000-square-foot home.
The home has low turnover — just one vacancy in over two years, Wells said. It’s an affordable ($700 a month per person) living situation for tenants who gradually buy into an owning share of the co-op.
“We have quarterly work days, make sure all the plants are growing and everything is trimmed,” she said. “We paint and repair things.”
There’s also a safety net if someone falls ill or loses their job, Wells added.
“There are all these really beautiful benefits of living in a community that are just swept under the rug for fear of a messy lawn or a party house,” Wells said.
Moving shelters out of industrial areas
Working on Denver’s group living limits “fundamentally” required a look at residential care facilities, Laura Swartz, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning and Development said, because the code is also outdated and limits how Denver’s 11 homeless shelters and 11 halfway homes can operate.
Halfway homes are only allowed in Denver’s industrial zones, and the proposal on the council’s plate would expand that to commercial corridors as well, increasing from about 1,200 available plots of land to about 19,000, Webb said.
Additional changes to the code would allow the renovation or reconstruction of large shelters, Swartz said. They would also allow shelters run by churches, nonprofits and governments to host up to 100 people for up to 130 days a year, rather than the current limit of 120 days. This way a network of three shelters could provide shelter year-round, she added.
But changes to the group living requirements are only a distraction, Florence Sebern, a member of Safe and Sound Denver. Rather, she said, the proposal is instead meant to allow community correctional facilities, otherwise known as halfway houses, and homeless shelters elsewhere in town.
“It’s a shell game,” Sebern said in a news release, adding that she believes city planners kept their intentions hidden.
But Sebern is wrong, Webb said. The proposals have been in the works for years and required dozens of public meetings. He noted that a city website, launched in 2018, contains “reams” of documentation showing what was in store.
Plus, halfway homes would not pop up on every corner, said Greg Mauro, Denver’s director of community corrections. The demand isn’t there.
The existing 11 halfway homes host about 350 people, Mauro said, and he expects to need a few hundred more beds, but not immediately. At most, five smaller halfway houses hosting up to 30 people each and one large one hosting up to 100 people could pop up in the next five years, he said.
And even then there are guardrails — like funding and negotiations with city officials — “it just doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.
At the same time, the proposal would benefit halfway houses, which are meant to reintegrate people into the community, Mauro said. Better locations — even just access to public transportation — are an improvement over the current, remote facilities.
Austin and Salt Lake City already allow halfway homes and shelters in more than just industrial zones and neither city has seen any major issues stemming from those sites, Dutton and Norris said.
Southeast Denver resident Howie Shapiro wrote to the council that he fears a sharp increase in crime and decreases in property values and quality of life.
“We chose this neighborhood because we liked the quiet suburb feel,” Shapiro wrote. “Changes made to the zoning to allow group living means halfway houses and Section 8 housing, which ruins every neighborhood that does this.”
But there’s no evidence to suggest an increase in crime would follow along with any new halfway houses, Mauro said. Police responded an average of 86 times last year to apartment complexes with more than 20 units, according to a report from Mauro’s office. Halfway homes averaged 31 responses in that same time span.
The facilities provide “an environment that’s structured, that’s staffed, that’s secure,” Mauro said.
The proposals — which Mauro said are much needed — also come at a time when Denver City Council is reconsidering its partnership with private prison companies that run some of the city’s halfway houses.
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