For decades, the City of Denver has allowed just two unrelated adults to live together in the same household.
"A lot of these regulations date back to the 1950s and the notions of nuclear families living in neighborhoods," says Andrew Webb, the head of Denver Community Planning and Development's multi-year-long project to update group-living allowances in the zoning code. "We know that the way people define families and the way people live together has evolved quite a bit since then."
In January, Webb and his team began unveiling a list of the proposed zoning code changes, including a recommendation to change the number of unrelated adults that can live together in one home from two to eight. According to Webb, the average number of unrelated adults that can live together in other communities in the metro area is five.
There are already plenty of households in Denver that house more than two unrelated adults, and by upping the number to eight, housing would become more affordable for adults who are willing to live with others, suggest members of the Group Living Advisory Committee. And some people simply want the rules to support their lifestyle choice to live together.
But since revealing its proposed changes, the Group Living project team has received a plethora of responses pushing back against the idea of allowing that many unrelated people to live together in the same home.
"Cram-packing people into homes and creating high-density neighborhoods is third-world BS," one commenter wrote in an email.
"8 unrelated adults is a lot," another person emailed.
"Many commenters indicated that allowing up to 8 individuals to live in houses up to 1,600 square feet sounds like 'too many.' Approximately half of the input indicates support for some lower number, such as 4, 5 or 6 unrelated adults, with 4 being the most common suggestion," city officials wrote in a summary of the comments.
Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who serves on the Group Living Advisory Committee, says that the next proposed updates will be responsive to public comments. "We heard the feedback. The number is going to go down," Kniech notes.
But some affordable-housing advocates want to ensure that Kniech's fellow councilmembers, who are likely to be voting on these proposed changes in the coming months, don't agree to a number that's too low.
"They're hearing from constituents about traffic and how many cars will be there," says Susan Powers, president of Urban Ventures, a neighborhood-conscious urban redevelopment company. "It’s important for them to also hear that I personally care more about if people have a pillow to put their head on at night rather than where their car gets parked."
Aside from worrying about increased density, commenters also expressed concern about people using the changes as a way to make money.
"Please do not destroy the character of Denver neighborhoods to appease investment property owners looking for profits by cramming people into a single family home," one person emailed the city.
In response to such feedback, Kniech anticipates adding additional language in the proposed group-living update that will define a household as "a group of people who live together and agree to share expenses," and "not a profit center."
The proposed changes would also allow for more zoning districts throughout Denver to accommodate residential care facilities that have nine or more people inside the same household. That potentially means more halfway houses spread out throughout Denver neighborhoods to help solve the city's halfway-house bed shortage crisis, which resulted after city council voted against community corrections contracts with two private prison companies.
Many people commenting on the proposal expressed concerns about living next to "criminals" and other undesirable types. Powers says that the committee even received a letter that raised alarmist concerns about "gangsters and prisoners" residing by families and hurting children.
"Those kinds of fringe opinions can grow," says Powers, who recently sent an email to the Mothers Advocate for Affordable Housing listserv encouraging people to contact councilmembers and city officials to express support for expanding group-living options.
Because halfway houses aren't the only kind of group-living situations these changes would affect. Projects housing recovering addicts and others in need of help might be allowed in more areas, and that includes more homeless shelters.
For Kniech, that doesn't necessarily mean more shelter beds. Instead, she'd like to see an emphasis on individualized, holistic care at smaller facilities.
"Pieces of this update aren’t just about doing more. It’s about doing better," says the councilwoman, who notes that shelters won't simply pop up in single-family homes.
"There aren't going to be twenty folks living in a single-family home," Kniech says. "It’s a different kind of building when you’re dealing with congregate living." Such facilities have specific building-code requirements, such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems.
And no matter how Denver's numbers change, up to eight unrelated seniors or people with disabilities will be allowed to live together, under state and federal laws protecting against housing discrimination.
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