Pro-Group Living Ordinance Advocates Mount Fight Against Safe and Sound Denver

Five unrelated adults can live together in one household...for now.
Five unrelated adults can live together in one household...for now. Courtesy of Meredith Turk
Zoning is one of the most contentious issues that Denver voters will consider on this November's ballot. Yes, zoning.

For three years, Community Planning and Development staffers worked on an overhaul of the group-living aspects of the Denver Zoning Code; in February, Denver City Council approved the final version of their proposal. As a result, more areas of the city were opened up to halfway houses, homeless shelters and sober-living homes. The number of unrelated adults allowed to live together in the same household was also increased, from two to five.

But on the November ballot, Denver voters will now be asked whether to repeal the new zoning ordinance.

"A 'yes' vote on 2F provides safe and stable neighborhoods for all Denver neighbors, protects all Denver children by restoring school buffer zones between homes/schools and halfway houses, homeless shelters, and sanctioned camps, and reduces congestion, trash, and parking issues," says Paige Burkeholder, a member of Safe and Sound Denver, an advocacy group that formed in summer 2020 to oppose various aspects of the proposed group-living overhaul.

Safe and Sound Denver's advocacy, as well as complaints from other members of the public, contributed to CPD watering down certain sections of the group-living proposal even before council voted on the measure. At one point, for example, CPD was set to allow eight unrelated adults to live together in the same home.

After council approved the final version, Safe and Sound Denver, which has also taken shots at Denver's safe-camping sites, began pushing for its repeal. With the help of signature-gathering paid for by a dark-money group named Defend Colorado, which has also donated to efforts to lower the sales tax and create civil liability for Denver if it doesn't mitigate homeless encampments, Safe and Sound Denver landed a repeal item on the November ballot.

But supporters of the group living ordinance have now launched an opposition campaign targeting the repeal effort.

The No on 2F Keep Denver Housed group counts members of Denver City Council, the multi-faith advocacy group Together Colorado, and Healthier Colorado as supporters.

"There was a very, very long, thorough process involved when the city council voted to support these changes. A lot of compromises were made. It went from eight unrelated people to five unrelated people. All we were doing with this group-living ordinance was bringing ourselves into what many cities have done for many years," says Susan Powers, a local affordable-housing developer who donated $5,000 to the Keep Denver Housed campaign. "This is the way we house our society today. I think it would be really unfortunate if we took a step back in time. It was very disheartening."

The Keep Denver Housed campaign is driving home the message that in an increasingly unaffordable city, individuals are sharing households in order to afford living in Denver.

"This is the wrong time, in the middle of a pandemic, with record-high housing prices, to take away people's abilities to share housing," says Robin Kniech, an at-large councilmember who served on the group-living advisory committee as the ordinance was being crafted.

But while Keep Denver Housed is highlighting how the new group-living ordinance lets more unrelated adults live together in affordable arrangements, Safe and Sound Denver has recently switched its focus from household size to other aspects of the ordinance, such as the one that allows halfway houses in more parts of Denver.

Prior to the zoning changes, new halfway houses could only be set up in industrial zones and had to be 1,500 feet away from schools. The group-living ordinance opened up other areas of the city for halfway houses, such as mixed-use and commercial zones and certain multi-unit zone districts, and removed the 1,500-foot school buffer. But as CPD notes on its website, "about half of Denver’s existing community corrections facilities are already within 1,500 feet (the 'buffer' zone) of one or more schools. The buffers have not been a functional way to regulate these facilities and they do not prevent new schools or childcare providers from opening within a buffer zone."

And in any case, halfway houses still will not be allowed in areas with single-unit, two-unit or certain row-home zoning, Keep Denver Housed notes.

"This law does not allow people coming from prison in residential neighborhoods," says Kniech, countering claims made by opponents. "We will continue to correct the record on that every single time."

In addition to 2F, Denver residents will get to vote on several other hot-button issues on the November ballot, including measures related to the Park Hill Golf Course, bond items for the National Western Center, and whether to remove the mayor's nominating authority for the Independent Monitor.
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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.

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