Almost three years ago, Denver began working on a massive overhaul of parts of the city zoning code that address group living. The proposal unveiled last month would raise the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same household from two to five, with the possibility of going up to ten, depending on the household's square footage.
The proposal would also significantly increase the areas of the city that can accommodate residential-care facilities, such as halfway houses and homeless shelters.
"Our take is that these amendments are really important and timely, especially given the ongoing concerns about affordability, but also the potential new wave of job losses and potential evictions down the road," says Andrew Webb, the city planner overseeing the project. "We want to make sure that our regulations are not providing a barrier or an obstacle to people finding flexible, affordable housing options."
But while proponents believe the changes would make Denver's zoning code more equitable and up to date, some members of Denver City Council are concerned both with how the proposal was created and certain aspects of the changes, making it likely that the proposal will undergo at least another facelift before reaching the full council.
"I have concerns about the rollout of the proposal, community engagement, and when and how the proposal was communicated," Councilwoman Kendra Black said at a September 1 committee meeting where Webb presented the proposal. Black noted that on two occasions earlier this year, seven councilmembers had reached out to the Department of Community Planning and Development to request that the agency pause the process because of concerns that the pandemic had cut off in-person engagement. "Every time, CPD denied our request," she noted. "Now I'd like us to slow down and take the time that we need."
At that same meeting, Councilman Kevin Flynn said that he, too, believes the process for soliciting community input was "seriously flawed" and "lacking in equitable engagement." In particular, Flynn noted a dearth of diversity on the project's advisory committee.
And Paul Kashmann, whose district includes the University of Denver, expressed concerns about the significant increase in the number of unrelated adults who can live together. "I think that one-size-fits-all does not work," Kashmann said, noting that there are "de facto fraternity and sorority houses throughout the neighborhood," and that "historically, they have been a problem for the neighborhood." Kashmann's district is responsible for the highest number of complaints to 311 regarding household size.
The project had been on track to move to the full council for an October vote, but without some fast work, it could get kicked months down the road.
"I hear really clearly that we’re not there," Robin Kniech, one of two councilmembers on the zoning amendment advisory committee, said at the September 1 meeting.
"I don’t have any estimates on a timeline," Kniech now says. "I believe council and the community deserve more time to find common ground. I think because of the urgency of both pieces of the package, we have an obligation not to allow people to be displaced, and we have some responsibilities that are urgent. It’s certainly my hope that we can do this work sooner rather than later."
Webb, who believes that community engagement was already robust, is not yet sure what could be changed before the proposal returns to the committee for another hearing; he's still absorbing and assessing the feedback he received on September 1. "We need to analyze with our colleagues in [Community Planning and Development] to see what options we have, and then begin dialogue with councilmembers on [the committee] and other councilmembers to understand what they want to see," he says. "At that point, we will come up with some proposed changes or approaches that we will outline in a staff report that will ultimately go to [the committee] that might recommend amendments."
Earlier this year, after receiving pushback from Denver residents, Webb lowered the base number of unrelated adults who could live together in the same household from eight to five.
Several members of council have suggested establishing a permitting system for households that would like to exceed a certain number of unrelated adults, a system that cities such as Boulder already have on the books.
"They have a permit system. Maybe the solution was as simple as that," says Flynn. At the September 1 meeting, Kniech expressed being open to that idea. "I think it’s very reasonable to think about a permit here," she said.
Kniech also thinks there are ways to assuage the concerns that Kashmann has about party houses in his district. "Holding landlords accountable for what happens on their property is one way to get what we’re looking for. I think that one of the themes that everyone is concerned about is accountability," Kniech says, adding that there's also the option of adding more city inspectors to check off-street parking requirements and building-code requirements like fire suppression. "That to me feels like a reasonable conversation to have."
While Flynn believes the zoning code is definitely out of date, he says he'd like to see the proposal split into bite-sized amendments rather than presented as one item. After all, he notes, in late 2019, Denver City Council voted on a zoning change already taken from this larger proposal, one that allows tiny home villages.
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"It has to be broken up," Flynn says of the current proposal. "There’s nothing that would move me to a 'yes' vote until we settle these numerous outstanding concerns." He suggests the possibility of having three specific proposals: one dealing with household size, another with residential-care facilities like homeless shelters, and a third focused on halfway houses.
Flynn wants Chris Herndon, chair of the committee that is currently scheduled to vote on the proposal October 6, to spread out discussion on these three aspects over multiple meetings.
But Kniech still wants to keep the package together.
"I get that it’s a lot to absorb," she says. "There's that saying, 'You eat an elephant bite by bite.' Of course you work through topic by topic, but in the end, if you’re amending the same section of the code, it’s hard for me to see why you wouldn’t want to see all those changes in one place."