Colorado History

Denver Zoning Code Update Would Let More Adults Live Together

Residents at the Queen City Collective have been advocating for updates to zoning-code requirements for group living.
Residents at the Queen City Collective have been advocating for updates to zoning-code requirements for group living. Courtesy of Meredith Turk
Paul Bindel, a writer and videographer, lives in a house in Capitol Hill that he shares with eight other adults, plus a baby.

"We manage a budget together," he explains. "We have quarterly maintenance workdays, where we spend an entire day working on our house. And we have weekly meetings, where we see how the house is doing and what we need to take care of, and also have a personal check-in."

And no one pays more than $730 a month for a private bedroom and access to about 3,000 square feet of living space, he says.

But while Bindel and his housemates, who've formed what they call the Queen City Cooperative, have a particularly practical and economical living arrangement, Denver zoning code frowns upon it.

"We’ve been pretty public that we are in violation of the zoning code," Bindel admits.

Under that zoning code, no more than two unrelated adults can live together in the same household in Denver.  University of Denver students renting a house off-campus, millennials finding friends on Craigslist and sharing a home in the Baker neighborhood, or a trio of seniors sharing a high-rise on Cheesman Park are all technically in violation of city rules.

Soon, however, that section of Denver's zoning code — already socially antiquated and a significant obstacle to affordable housing, advocates say — could be a thing of the past.

On May 27, Denver's Group Living Advisory Committee, of which Bindel is a member, approved a series of proposed zoning-code changes regarding group living that were suggested by city planners.

The "Group Living Code Amendment," which has been in the works since March 2018, seeks to increase the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same home, and also expands the areas of Denver in which residential-care facilities can be housed. With the committee's approval, the proposed amendment cleared its final hurdle before heading over to city officials for their consideration.

The draft proposal that will be posted for public comment and eventually sent to the Denver Planning Board and Denver City Council for votes would raise the number of unrelated adults who can live in the same household from two to five. Additionally, households of at least 1,800 square feet can add another unrelated adult for every 200 square feet, up to a total of ten. Households with more than five unrelated adults would just need interconnected smoke alarms, per Denver fire-safety laws.

The zoning-code updates won't affect families. Under the current rules, there's no limit to the number of related adults who can live in a household, and that would remain the same.

By increasing the number of people who can live together, Denver can help with the affordable-housing crisis, according to proponents of the change.

"We have people literally living in tents on the streets in our neighborhood, and we need to address this housing shortage by allowing adults to live together," says John Hayden of the Curtis Park Neighbors association.

The proposal to expand the base number of unrelated adults who can live together from two to five, with a maximum of ten, reflects a compromise between city planners and community members.

Community Planning and Development staff had "heard a lot of support for these proposals in general," Andrew Webb, the city planner leading the Group Living Advisory Committee, said at the May 27 meeting. "There has been a lot of concern expressed" about the original proposal, he noted, which called for the base number of eight unrelated adults allowed to live together in a single household.

"Cram-packing people into homes and creating high-density neighborhoods is third-world BS," one Denver resident wrote in a complaint about that first proposal, which was released this past winter.

"8 unrelated adults is a lot," another person emailed.

By settling on five unrelated adults as a base number, Denver will be in line with the average for Front Range municipalities, according to Webb.

The proposed zoning-code updates, which could undergo some minor tweaks in coming months, is likely to go before the Denver Planning Board this summer and then on to Denver City Council for final approval in late summer or early fall.

If council ultimately approves the changes, it will update a section of the zoning code that has been in place —though largely without teeth — since 1989.

As reflected in Bindel's open admission that he and his housemates are in violation of Denver zoning code, city inspectors haven't gone out of their way to enforce the two-unrelated-adults limit...unless they receive a complaint from a neighbor.

From January 2016 through April of this year, the city's 311 line received 580 complaints about unrelated adults living together. While those notifications came from throughout the city, the greatest density of complaints focus on the University of Denver neighborhood, and often come in during loud parties on the weekend.

But in the past, complaints have sometimes focused disproportionately on certain populations.

"Most of the complaints are concerning interracial couples," explains B. Erin Cole, who wrote a dissertation on race, sexuality and single-family zoning in Park Hill and Capitol Hill from 1956 to 1989. "There’s this way that people are naturalizing a specific idea of a family and using it as a weapon against interracial couples."

From the mid-1950s until 1989 in most parts of Denver, only one unrelated adult could live in a household, so any couples who weren't married were violating the law.

Recognizing that the zoning code discriminated against lesbian and gay couples and was also being weaponized against unmarried interracial couples, some Denver City Council members pushed for change. In a hotly contested vote in 1989, council approved pushing the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same home from one to two. As the Associated Press put it at the time, the city took "living in sin out of zoning restrictions."

Thirty-one years later, proponents of increasing the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same household again feel an urgency to push the changes, especially in light of the economic downturn in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Those who are out of work or working, but without child care — I think doubling up is something that people may need in the short term," says Robin Kniech, an at-large councilmember who has been serving on the Group Living Advisory Committee. "I do think that the urgency of this package is greater."

If passed by council, the proposed zoning-code updates would also increase the parts of Denver in which residential-care facilities, such as smaller homeless shelters and halfway houses, can be built.

That would allow more shelters designed for the needs of specific populations in different parts of the city, Kniech suggests. These smaller shelters would be more nimble, and more likely to become 24-hour operations.

"We know very much about the importance of transforming shelters into more residential, 24-hour spaces. And the zoning code is a barrier to that," Kniech says. "When you do 24-hour shelter, people come indoors."
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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.