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With Boulder staff not actively enforcing occupancy, City Council will wait to discuss reform in January


Boulder currently will not suspend enforcement of its occupancy limits but is likely to add occupancy reform to the city’s work plan, depending on the outcome of discussions at the City Council’s annual retreat in January.

This informal decision comes several weeks after some Boulder City Council members suggested they’d look for a nod of five to suspend enforcement of the city’s current occupancy regulations while potentially considering larger-scale reforms. A nod of five is an informal way for the council to indicate majority support and provide direction for staff.

If the city wants to take a look at the zoning ordinances that regulate occupancy, advocates of occupancy reform have said it is important to suspend enforcement of such ordinances because it allows Boulder residents living over occupied to provide feedback and perspective without fear of eviction. Currently, in most areas of Boulder, no more than three unrelated people are allowed to live together.

However, city staff later clarified that the city hasn’t been actively enforcing its occupancy limits because of the coronavirus pandemic and that the number of complaints has been minimal. As of mid November, there have been 22 complaints regarding occupancy, five of which have been verified to be in violation of the zoning regulations.

In those cases, if there is a safety issue such as a person living in a windowless basement bedroom with no way to escape in case of fire, the city said it works with landlords to mitigate problems and avoid displacement.

“In all cases, our goal — whether it’s in a single family home occupied by a single family or whether it’s in a multi-family structure or an office or anything else — is to be sure that buildings are built according to code and they are safe to dwell in or to occupy,” Planning and Development Services Director Jacob Lindsey said in Tuesday’s Boulder City Council meeting.

This is important considering all cities, including Boulder, face fires, floods and other natural disasters, he said.

“It is always our goal to preserve safety,” Lindsey said. “The zoning ordinance is not some kind of backdoor method that we are using to displace tenants because of the discovery of a life safety violation. That is not the case. I want to be very clear about that.”

Still, this process drew some criticism from City Council members, who questioned how equitable it is to enforce issues of life safety through a complaint-driven process. People who are renting and living with unrelated people are likely more fearful about attention being drawn to their situation, Councilmember Nicole Speer said.

City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, who worked in code compliance in Minneapolis, agreed that the conversation is a worthwhile one, given the nuance of the situation. However, she noted enforcement of code violations such as occupancy is often complaint driven because there are not enough staff members to take on proactive enforcement.

Additionally, she said staff must visit properties after a complaint to observe whether there are any violations that threaten the safety of those residing there.

Although Boulder is not actively displacing residents, evictions ultimately fall on a property’s landlord. Councilmember Lauren Folkerts asked for more details about how Boulder prevents displacement. For example, she asked: Would the city help construct a window in a windowless basement bedroom?

Lindsey said he wasn’t prepared to discuss any case specifics but noted the city tries to work with the landlord to address the problem.

Considering a resident-initiated ballot measure that would have relaxed Boulder’s occupancy limits failed in November’s municipal election, some City Council members argued a conversation on occupancy reform should wait for the retreat — if it happens at all.

“There are so many moving pieces to this conversation in terms of guardrails and protections and changes,” Councilmember Mark Wallach said. “This needs to be done holistically, not in a reflexive manner where we simply state that we’re going to put a moratorium on enforcement and not address any other component of the problem.”

In 2020, the previous City Council committed to taking a look at the city’s occupancy regulations. However, it later backtracked, determining it would be best to address the matter after the outcome of the most recent municipal election had been determined.

The new City Council majority has decided to have the conversation at the retreat in January in hopes it will model good governance and build trust. At that point, the council will determine whether to add occupancy reform to Boulder’s work plan. If it chooses to do so, the city could then begin studying the city’s current regulations to determine what is working and what, if anything, should be changed.

If changes are brought forth, there would be a public process with community engagement and public hearings.

Ultimately, City Council members hope to divorce the failed Bedrooms Are For People ballot measure from the idea of occupancy reform.

“My commitment is to focus on occupancy reform while also looking at many of the guardrails associated with some of the issues that voters brought up that ultimately voted no on (Bedrooms),” City Council member Matt Benjamin said.

“Right now, the status quo isn’t working for everybody,” he added. “This is not going to be a regurgitation of Bedrooms. This is going to be a clean look while leveraging the conversation and narrative that we’ve had over the last two years.”

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