After voluminous public comment and deliberations that combined to last exactly eight hours, the Denver Planning Board voted unanimously on August 19 to approve a major overhaul of outdated sections of the city's zoning code that deal with group living.
"We are doing this because we know we have an immediate need for housing of all types in Denver," Andrew Webb, the city planner overseeing the project, said during the hearing.
The changes, which have been in the works since March 2018, still need to be approved by Denver City Council in the coming weeks. If council gives the okay, then the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same household will increase significantly, from two to five, as will areas of the city where congregate living settings, such as homeless shelters and halfway houses, can be located.
In addition to increasing the number of adults who can live together to five, the proposal calls for allowing households of at least 1,800 square feet to add another unrelated adult for every 200 square feet, up to a total of ten. Households of more than five unrelated adults would just need interconnected smoke alarms, under Denver fire-safety laws. The changes won't affect families, which are already allowed to have an uncapped number of related adults in the same household.
Proponents of these changes, dozens of whom testified at the hearing, view them as a way to bring Denver's zoning code into the modern era regarding group living situations, increase equity throughout the city, and accommodate the housing situations that best fit an individual's financial circumstances.
“I think it’s time to address the inherent discrimination in our zoning code," said Dmitrii Zavorotny, a boardmember of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods (CHUN).
Even so, there's still vocal opposition to some of the changes from many registered neighborhood organizations; over twenty have sent in letters asking city officials to stop moving forward with the proposal. Their concerns include parking issues and perceptions that home values could decrease while crime could increase.
"I will not accept the possibility of a group of prisoners living in my neighborhood,” one homeowner testified, citing worries that halfway houses would spring up in more residential areas of the city.
Frank Schultz, one of the planning board's members, said he supports the board recommending the zoning code amendment that increases the number of unrelated adults living together, but still had concerns about the suggested change dealing with congregate living. "I can’t get my head around it with correctional facilities," he said. "I can’t support it with that in it."
The planning board eventually worked out a deal, putting forth two minor alterations.
First, the board recommended that Denver City Council create an annual policy review to look at unintended impacts of the zoning code changes, especially in areas with residents vulnerable to displacement. The board also recommended that council create a requirement for community information meetings for the establishment of small halfway houses in residential zoning districts.
By raising the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same household, Denver would be coming in line with other Front Range municipalities, according to Webb.
The initial proposal from Denver's Department of Community Planning and Development called for a base number of eight unrelated adults being allowed to live together in the same household. That proposed number was dropped from eight to five, and the maximum number reduced from unlimited to ten, following pushback from critics worried about overcrowded homes.
From the mid-1950s until 1989, in most locations around Denver, only one unrelated adult could live in a household, so that couples who weren't married were violating the law. Those on the wrong side of the law generally didn't get into trouble unless neighbors complained to the city — and sometimes those complaints focused disproportionately on certain populations.
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"Most of the complaints are concerning interracial couples," B. Erin Cole, who wrote a dissertation on race, sexuality and single-family zoning in Park Hill and Capitol Hill from 1956 to 1989, had previously told Westword. "There’s this way that people are naturalizing a specific idea of a family and using it as a weapon against interracial couples."
Aware that the zoning code was discriminating against gay and lesbian couples and also being used against unmarried interracial couples, Denver City Council members pushed for change thirty years ago. In a tight vote in 1989, council approved raising the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same household from one to two.
But that made any kind of cooperative living situation technically illegal, so the planning board took on the mission of updating the code.
"We are finally undoing having different definitions of 'household' in different parts of the city," Joel Noble, chair of the planning board, said at the epic hearing. "It increases the freedom to live with who you wish, and that’s so important."