By Chelsea Castellano & Eric Budd. Also published as a Guest Opinion in the Daily Camera on May 18, 2021.
We are part of a grassroots, volunteer-led organization dedicated to empowering voters to reform Boulder’s exclusionary home occupancy laws. In most of Boulder, it’s illegal for more than three unrelated people to live together, no matter how big the home is or even if the owner lives in their home. If passed by Boulder voters this November, the Bedrooms Are For People Act will expand access to housing by making it legal for one person to live in each bedroom of a home.
Federal law has long established that home occupancy limits cannot be enforced against families: housing discrimination against families is illegal. Yet many cities continue to discriminate against people who choose to live with others that are not related to them through blood or marriage. And Boulder is one of them.
For more than 50 years, occupancy limits have criminalized the oldest and simplest solution to housing affordability: housemates. The prohibition on shared housing has made it difficult to adapt our neighborhoods that were constructed for large, traditional families to the evolving households of today: more singles of all ages, empty-nesters with housemates, smaller families, students, bi-nuclear families, ADUs, and otherwise blended households. Home occupancy laws have long been weaponized to exclude “undesirable” groups from Boulder, including immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, hippies, renters, and lower-income residents.
People across the U.S. have begun to recognize the negative impacts of occupancy limits and the urgent need for change. In the last month, Oregon and Washington joined several other states in making home occupancy laws like Boulder’s illegal. As summarized by the Sightline Institute, these states’ laws “will no longer let [city] zoning codes dictate who can live together based on exclusionary definitions of ‘family.’” The article continues that “cities have historically excluded low-income renters” through “capping the number of unrelated people that can live together in a home. The effect is to mandate empty bedrooms across the state.”
We’re also seeing movement to reform discriminatory housing laws at the national level. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for an end to policies that prevent equal access to economic prosperity for all people. The plan calls for “an innovative new approach to eliminate state and local exclusionary zoning laws, which drive up the cost of construction and keep families from moving to neighborhoods with more opportunities for them and their kids.”
Boulder’s current occupancy limits make it illegal for four unrelated people to share a four-bedroom home in most of the city. People either knowingly or unknowingly break the law to live more affordably and sustainably by sharing household resources and expenses. Yet Boulder enforces occupancy laws in ways that are both aggressive and invasive. City government enforcement officers will investigate homes suspected of over-occupancy by looking for indications that more unrelated people are living together than are allowed, counting beds and even toothbrushes on bathroom sinks. If an officer or landlord determines that a household is breaking the law, then one or more of the people living there can be evicted. Not only are unrelated people in Boulder not allowed to share housing—they are criminalized for doing so.
It may be surprising to many Boulderites that our community, one that overwhelmingly voted for President Biden, has housing laws that directly contradict the values of the Democratic Party. According to Biden’s plans, exclusionary housing laws like Boulder’s, if left unaltered, could disqualify our city from receiving federal housing funds.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the choice to make Boulder’s laws bend toward equity and justice. Sometimes we can make progress through our elected representatives. And sometimes, when our representatives don’t have the political will to do what is right, progress must be led by the people.
Over the past year, Boulder voters have shown widespread community support for the Bedrooms Are For People Act, exceeding the number of signatures needed to place the measure on the November 2021 ballot.
We believe Boulder is a progressive place where people want their laws to reflect their values. That is why we are putting the Bedrooms Are For People Act on the ballot: to give Boulder voters the opportunity to become the first in the nation to reform discriminatory occupancy laws through a citizen-led initiative. We are asking for your vote this November to make Boulder a more inclusive, affordable, and welcoming place to call home.
Chelsea Castellano and Eric Budd are campaign co-leads. Visit BedroomsAreForPeople.com to learn more and find out how you can support this effort.