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Boulder needs equal housing access in the City charter

By Eric Budd. Also published as a "Guest Column" in the Boulder Weekly on July 30, 2020.


In most of Boulder, it’s illegal for more than three unrelated people to live together in a home. The Bedrooms Are For People ballot measure would guarantee that all people have equal access to housing options through a change to the City of Boulder’s charter. Our measure would allow up to one person to live in each bedroom of a home, plus one additional person. Boulder needs to stop discriminating against people based on their relationship status—even if “It’s Complicated.”


A U.S. Supreme Court case in 1974, Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, clarified that cities may not legally enforce home occupancy limits against traditional families. Families in Boulder are not and cannot be subject to home occupancy limits. At that time, the court gave an opinion that cities did have the right to use their “police power” to discriminate in housing based on family status.


In 2020, the City of Boulder still uses occupancy limits to control who is allowed to live together. Its rules are not for the purposes of health and safety, but for purposes of social and behavioral control. Rather than using its regulatory powers to control the possible nuisance impacts such as parking, noise or trash issues of specific “problem” households, the City leverages discriminatory occupancy limits against an entire class of people who are unrelated by not allowing them to share a home.


Boulder first enacted occupancy limits more than 45 years ago. But with each passing year, the negative effects on people in our city become more dire and pressing.

Occupancy limits disproportionately affect working class people, people without family support systems, and people who are less likely to have the means to live in Boulder without pooling resources. Limits affect our LGBTQ community who are often estranged from their families. The gap in wealth along racial lines puts people of color at further disadvantage.


In a university town, the law snags undergraduate students, who often live illegally, as well as grad students, post-docs and university faculty and staff whose incomes have not kept up with housing costs in recent decades. Many young professionals also struggle with occupancy limits, as the price of buying into Boulder has risen out of reach of most people who work in town. Rather than living together and forming new families, most have to choose between living in Boulder and having children at all.


The human costs of living illegally are serious. Dozens of people are evicted for over-occupancy in Boulder each year, which upends lives and becomes part of a permanent record. Many others are forced to live in the shadows — “extra” occupants are left off of leases, shy away from their neighbors, and avoid participating in civic matters for fear of eviction. In Boulder, occupancy enforcement is complaint-based, which provides rife opportunities for selective punishment. Residents of over-occupied housing live at the mercy of their more powerful and secure neighbors.  


It is critical that we address non-discrimination in housing in the City’s charter, which outlines the function and essential procedures of the City government. All people deserve certainty and stability in their housing options, even if they are not related to each other.


But at a recent City Council meeting, Mayor Sam Weaver dismissed this argument, stating that “land use doesn’t work in the charter” and “zoning is even worse.” But citizens have previously enshrined at least two such provisions in the City’s core documents — the Blue Line, which restricts water utility services to existing urban areas beneath the western foothills, and the 55-foot height limit, which protects views of the mountains.


If we can use the charter to protect these natural elements that define the character of our city, we should also use the charter to protect the people who live within it.


Boulder has a long history of exclusion, especially in regard to housing. In a 2013 column, then-Boulder Weekly editor Wayne Laugesen recalled an interview with former Ku Klux Klan leader Thomas Robb: “Boulder had done everything right… by planning and zoning to exclude — complete with growth caps known as the Danish Plan — Boulder had made itself inhospitable to working-class minorities who reproduce.”


Now is the time for the people of Boulder to work to repair its exclusionary past, and reforming occupancy limits is one step along the way. We won’t stop our efforts to get the Bedrooms Are For People charter amendment on the November 2020 ballot, and we are asking for your vote. 


Eric Budd is an organizer with Bedrooms Are For People. 

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