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Denver Group Living Update Takes Final Form for City Council Vote

The group-living zoning proposal is taking final form.
The group-living zoning proposal is taking final form.
Courtesy of Meredith Turk
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After nearly three years of work, a proposal to overhaul the group-living aspects of Denver's zoning code — most notably the number of unrelated adults who can live together in one household — is in the final stretch.

"Our zoning code’s rules on residential uses, from household sizes to care facilities, are outdated and are preventing the city from meeting our residents’ urgent needs for shelter, supportive services and shared housing arrangements," says Laura Swartz, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development (CDP), which has pushed the project. "These changes would replace many outdated regulations, which have roots in classism and racism, with a more equitable approach for how and where residential-care facilities are located."

On December 22, Denver City Council's Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will vote on the proposal's current form; if it passes, it will move on to the full council for a vote in February.

For months, the CPD has been workshopping the proposal in front of councilmembers, attempting to get the plan to the point where a majority of them will endorse it. Along the way, various members have expressed opposition to certain aspects of the revision, such as the increase in the number of unrelated adults who can live together; as a result, the planners have toned down some of their changes.

In its current form, the proposal would increase the number of adults who can live together in the same home from two unrelated adults to a total of five, rather than the ten once proposed. (The exception: An unlimited number of related adults can live together in the same household, as long as there's no unrelated adult in the home; that's unchanged from the current zoning code.)

The proposal would also significantly increase the number of areas in Denver where halfway houses could be located. Residential areas zoned as single-unit or two-unit and certain rowhouse areas would still be off-limits to halfway houses. Still, this would be "a huge improvement for several reasons," says Swartz, "including that Denver needs more bed space in halfway homes that we can’t meet under existing zoning, and it allows these services to be placed in areas where people can better access transportation, jobs and daily needs."

The group-living overhaul would allow for service providers to set up residential-care facilities, such as homeless shelters and sober living homes, in more parts of Denver as well. Certain restrictions would limit larger residential-care facilities in more residential neighborhoods.

Finally, the proposal would create density limits for residential-care facilities that serve up to ten people in order to prevent any single neighborhood from having an oversaturation of these types of facilities.

The overhaul is already well behind schedule, delayed both by the COVID-19 pandemic and council requests for more detailed staff presentations. The proposal has morphed considerably from its original version, as Andrew Webb, the senior city planner overseeing the project, altered various aspects to gain the approval of certain councilmembers.

"We have worked to align around common values for the betterment of Denver while ensuring these revised amendments thoughtfully address the concerns of councilmembers," says Swartz.

If the full Denver City Council does finally pass the proposal, the CPD will also present an ordinance in early 2021 that would extend the household-size aspects of the zoning updates to areas of the city currently zoned under the old zoning code, which so far have been exempt from changes. A little over 20 percent of Denver remains zoned under the old code, known as former Chapter 59, despite the fact that Denver City Council adopted a new code in 2010. Many of these parcels had been developed under special zoning permits; when the new code was adopted a decade ago, it included a stipulation that the city couldn't amend the zoning of any areas still under the old code. But that could change.

The path forward won't be entirely smooth, however. Some Denver residents have been lobbying vocally against the project, banding together as Safe and Sound Denver.

That group has sent out periodic emails and even created a YouTube video warning of the "unintended consequences" of the project, including "destruction of your property values" and "transient populations."

Update: The Denver City Council committee approved the proposal, and its moved on to the full council for consideration in early February.

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