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We can’t discriminate our way to inclusion

By Eric Budd. Also published as a Guest Opinion in the Daily Camera on August 27, 2021.


A recent guest opinion in the Daily Camera by Hope Michelsen erroneously claimed that expanding access to housing through the Bedrooms Are For People measure would hurt people who are struggling to stay housed. We would like to correct the record.


Since before 1970, it has been illegal in most of Boulder for more than three unrelated people to live together, no matter how big the house is, how old the residents are, or even if the owner lives in the home. The Bedrooms Are For People ballot measure would update Boulder’s arbitrary, archaic, and exclusionary occupancy limits by setting limits for unrelated people based on the number of bedrooms in a home. Reforming restrictive housing laws is urgent now because housing insecurity — the number of people spending more than 30% of their income on housing — is at crisis proportions.


Michelsen puts forward unsubstantiated speculation, false and misleading statements that are disingenuous to the communities she claims to care about. While Michelsen says that Bedrooms Are For People would hurt low-income people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, the White House and President Biden disagree with her position.


On Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves, the White House released an article entitled Exclusionary Zoning: Its Effect on Racial Discrimination in the Housing Market. The article states that policies like housing occupancy limits “enact barriers to entry that constrain housing supply. The empirical literature finds a relationship between restrictive land use regulations and higher housing prices.” Additional research cited by the White House states, “We argue that anti-density zoning increases black residential segregation in U.S. metropolitan areas by reducing the quantity of affordable housing in white jurisdictions.”


People across the country have begun to recognize the negative impacts of occupancy limits and the urgent need for change. In the last year, Oregon and Washington joined several other states in making home occupancy laws like Boulder’s illegal. As summarized by 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, “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.”


Ms. Michelsen’s defense of using occupancy limits in college towns is outdated and misguided. Nearly one-third of the U.S. population lives in states where it is illegal for cities to impose such laws. Michelsen misrepresented Shelterforce’s data on students and occupancy limits. In the same article she cited, the author states that “reducing occupancy tightens a scarce housing market by requiring a larger number of single-family homes to provide shelter for the same number of students.” In addition to raising housing costs, occupancy limits “are in danger of violating the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition on discrimination based on familial status.”


Because Boulder’s occupancy limits are so restrictive, people break the law, creating a black market for housing that upholds power imbalances between renters and landlords. By making it legal to share housing, we give power back to people who are housing insecure. Rather than proposing a solution, Ms. Michelsen supports the status quo, which negatively impacts thousands of people right now.


Michelsen also claimed falsely that “CU continues to grow without building additional student housing.” In fact, CU Boulder built 1,200 housing units in 2013, 705 units in 2019, and the CU Housing Master Plan proposes an additional 1,100 units through the annexation of CU South which is currently under negotiation. Boulder must continue to work with CU to ensure that the university provides its fair share of housing for any new enrollment.


Boulder needs more housing. Colorado housing prices rose by 20% in the past year, and Boulder’s detached homes reached “a median price of $1,557,500, up 55.74% from the same period a year ago.” We’ve restricted housing to such an extent that housing has become valuable because it is scarce. Fair housing laws are not the source of investment in housing, and we can’t discriminate our way to inclusion.


Boulder is lagging behind its peers in reversing the damage caused by exclusionary policies. This fall, please vote "Yes" on Bedrooms Are For People to increase our community’s affordability, diversity, and resilience.


Eric Budd is a co-lead on the Bedrooms Are For People campaign

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