Denver Government

Denver Group-Living Amendment Repeal Makes November Ballot

Dinnertime at a group home in Denver: What's so scary?
Dinnertime at a group home in Denver: What's so scary? Courtesy of Meredith Turk
In November, voters will decide whether to repeal a massive overhaul of the group-living aspects of the Denver Zoning Code that Denver City Council approved in February.

On June 7, the Denver Elections Division certified that Safe and Sound Denver had submitted 13,642 valid signatures on its petition, which is well above the 9,184-signature requirement to place a measure on the citywide ballot in November.

“Placing this referendum on the November 2021 ballot gives Denver residents a voice and a choice about housing uses in their neighborhoods,” Florence Sebern explained when Safe and Sound Denver, a group of which she's a member, decided to take the issue to a citywide vote. "We object to our unique and diverse neighborhoods being used as an experiment for unproven agendas."

The group-living ordinance that council approved by an 11 to 2 vote in February increased the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same home from two to five, and also made it easier for service providers to set up residential-care facilities, such as halfway houses, sober-living homes and homeless shelters, throughout Denver.

The overhaul of the group-living aspects of the zoning code had been in the works for three years. Last summer, opponents of some of the changes formed Safe and Sound Denver and began lobbying against the proposal. Safe and Sound Denver argued that the proposed ordinance would decrease public safety, chip away at the neighborhood character of certain parts of Denver, and lead to overcrowding. The group also claimed that Community Planning and Development's work on the overhaul was results-oriented and had pre-determined outcomes.

At the beginning of 2021, Sebern notched a victory in Denver District Court when a judge largely sided with her regarding a lawsuit she'd filed to gain access to documents related to the group-living amendment's origins that the City of Denver had refused to turn over. The documents indicated that from the start of the planning process, those involved had hoped to address issues like the lack of halfway-house options in Denver and the number of unrelated adults who could live together. However, Community Planning and Development staffers say they were up front from the start about planning to address these aspects of the zoning code.

In April, two months after council approved the group-living amendments for areas under the current Denver Zoning Code (only Kevin Flynn and Amanda Sawyer voted against the proposal), Denver City Council voted unanimously to apply the increases in allowed household size to parts of Denver still under the old zoning code, which dates back to the 1950s. About one-fifth of the city remains zoned under the old code.

If Denver voters end up approving the repeal in November, Denver City Council could not re-enact the ordinance for at least one year, and then it would require approval by two-thirds of the members.

But while Safe and Sound Denver has mounted a robust campaign to derail the group-living amendments, supporters of those changes plan to fight vigorously against repeal in the run-up to November's election.

"This ballot question isn't just about how many adults can live together in a household, but about who belongs in our city. Throughout our nation's history, failed housing policies have been one of the largest drivers of systemic racism and wealth/income inequality," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which runs tiny-home villages and safe-camping sites for people experiencing homelessness in Denver. "In November, Denver voters will be given the opportunity to take a step forward out of the shadows of this history.  I look forward to being a part of building a campaign that will lead us forward to build a Denver where people of all races and income levels belong."
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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.