Communal-Home Residents Worry Living Arrangements Could Become Illegal

Queen City Cooperative has expanded beyond Capitol Hill.
Queen City Cooperative has expanded beyond Capitol Hill. Courtesy Meredith Turk
Amanda Jameson has been living with four housemates in a shared home in Athmar Park since September. The arrangement has given Jameson a chance to spend more time around others and also save money.

"Being here as opposed to living alone, I’m saving nearly $700 a month. And for me, that is incredible. I went from paying approximately 70 percent of my income in rent to paying right around 35 percent," says Jameson, 33, who is now paying $688 a month. "That change is really the thing that’s going to help me continue to stay in Denver long-term."

But Jameson's living arrangement could be threatened: On November 2, Denver voters will decide whether to repeal a group-living ordinance approved by Denver City Council in February that raised the number of unrelated adults that could live in the same household from two to five. If it passes, 2F would kick that legal limit back down to two.

Safe and Sound Denver, a community advocacy group that formed in 2020 to oppose the group-living ordinance, landed the repeal measure on the November ballot with help from the dark-money organization Defend Colorado.

"Denver has always been, and continues to be, a live-and-let-live city. Unless the number of people in a home negatively impacts neighbors or the community in which they reside, nothing happens," says Paige Burkeholder of Safe and Sound Denver.

In fact, investigations related to over-occupancy are complaint-based, so one only occurs if someone files a report with the city. "There were 60 to 100 investigations a year prior to the ordinance, about half of which resulted in founded violations, and most of which involved three, four or five individuals, according to the inspectors who had to investigate those homes," says Councilwoman Robin Kniech, one of the champions of the group-living ordinance.

The ordinance also increased the number of areas of the city suitable for halfway houses and homeless shelters, which Safe and Sound Denver argues creates public-safety concerns.

"Many Denver neighbors see the roommates piece as the Trojan horse to pass the entirety of the aggressive and massive zoning changes included," Burkeholder adds.

Denver's previous limit of two adults had been on the books for decades, and was on the very low end in Colorado. Research conducted by the Department of Community Planning and Development indicated that cities such as Fort Collins and Boulder allow three unrelated adults to live together, while Colorado Springs, Arvada and Westminster have okayed five.

According to CPD research, with the two-unrelated-adults limit, the average household size in Denver is 2.31. But Seattle, which allows eight unrelated adults in the same household, has an average household size of 2.12, while Vancouver, also with a limit of eight, has an average household size of 2.46.

The Keep Denver Housed campaign, which is fighting against 2F, has focused on the household size comparisons and the affordability factor.

"The average monthly rent in Denver is $1,670. If the Group Living Measure is repealed, it would take away affordable housing options for hard-working Coloradans such as teachers, firefighters, and nurses. These vital members of Denver should have the option to share housing costs with friends, coworkers, or roommates," Keep Denver Housed writes on its website. Keep Denver Housed has pulled in funding from high-profile local developers, other real estate industry stakeholders, and Healthier Colorado, a health advocacy nonprofit.

Jameson is definitely seeing the financial benefits of communal living. "I love Denver. I’ve been in Colorado for seven years, Denver for two. I would really, after building community for so long, I would love to stay. If 2F gets passed, that’s not something that I can do long-term. And for me, that would be really heartbreaking," says Jameson, who previously earned $4,000 a month working as a full-time test prep tutor, but now, owing to the pandemic, makes $2,000 a month doing freelance tutoring.

For Jameson, though, the benefits of communal living are about more than just cost savings. "We have house meetings once a week where we have dinner together and talk about how things are going in our lives. We talk about how things are going in our house and how we feel about how things are happening both in the house and the world at large," Jameson says. "It’s just really nice to wake up in the morning and go upstairs for a cup of coffee and be able to overhear and participate in a conversation that's going on."

Jameson got connected to the house in Athmar Park through Queen City Cooperative, a group that started as a co-op living arrangement in a Capitol Hill home. Queen City found the house in Athmar Park, purchased it and screened the housemates who eventually moved in.

"It seemed really ideal for us to create a co-op that is conforming to the new zoning rules that would allow us to house more people affordably and increase access to our ownership model," explains Sarah Wells, a real estate agent who lives in the original Queen City Cooperative home.

In the run-up to the passage of the group-living ordinance, Wells and other housemates spoke publicly about their co-op situation and even noted that they had nine unrelated adults living together in the same home.

"We were attacked and targeted the last time I spoke out publicly, so I'm choosing my words more carefully this time," Wells says, declining to say how many unrelated adults currently live in the Capitol Hill home. After they shared their story, she and her roommates were on the receiving end of an over-occupancy complaint.

"I don't know that I would've come out of the pandemic as mentally healthy as I am had it not been for the people that I shared this house with during that time," Wells says. "They are a family to me. We share meals together. We do chores together. We talk about our days together. The fact that I am continually having to have this conversation about who I'm allowed to live with in 2021 is suffocating."

If 2F passes, Denver City Council cannot reintroduce the group-living ordinance for at least one year, and then it will require approval by two-thirds of the members.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.