After 8-hour meeting, overhaul of group living rules moves to city council

The public has been airing concerns about having former prisoners as neighbors. Now the Planning Board has weighed in.
6 min. read
Residents watch on a TV as Denver’s planning board meets elsewhere in the City and County Building, socially distanced, to discuss changes to group living rules. Aug. 19, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Denver City Council will consider an overhaul of zoning rules that increases the number of people who can share a home.

After an eight-hour meeting that included a public comment period for which 74 people signed up to speak, the Planning Board voted eight in favor (with one member not voting) to forward the proposal to City Council for review. City Council is expected to take it up in October.

Hundreds of people sent written comments to the board ahead of its decision. For months, residents have aired such concerns as fear of having former prisoners as neighbors. People who share housing have pushed for their arrangements to be legitimized.

The proposed zoning code change includes increasing the number of adults who aren't related who can legally share a single-family home from two to five, with larger homes allowed to harbor as many as 10. Andrew Webb, the city planner who has managed the project, said inspectors respond to about 190 complaints a year about the occupancy rule being broken, and about half are found to be violations.

Before the proposals reached the Planning Board, an advisory committee that had initially recommended increasing the occupancy limit to eight changed to the five-to-10 compromise after a public discussion period during which some heated criticism was heard. City staff said Denver's rules are among the most restrictive in the country, and that five was more in keeping with limits set by Denver's neighbors.

Other proposed zoning changes include treating all of what are known as residential care facilities -- whether halfway houses or homes for seniors -- as one category. That would mean halfway houses, now restricted to industrial areas and downtown, could be located in more parts of Denver. In another change to the initial recommendations made before Wednesday's Planning Board vote, the lot size required for such facilities housing between 11 and 40 people was set at 12,000 square feet, ensuring that they would not be allowed in many residential areas because lots of such size are scarce.

Some Planning Board members were worried that the change in occupancy rules could lead to developers speculating on larger homes. That led to a request from the board to City Council that the change in the zoning code be reviewed annually for the next four years to determine whether it had unintended consequences. The board also amended the proposal to require community information meetings before halfway houses with 10 or fewer guests were established. Small halfway houses would be allowed anywhere in the city if the changes go through.

City planners said the proposal that emerged from more than two years of discussion further two main goals: providing more affordable housing, and ensuring all Denverites have access to housing after discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and other factors kept them from it.

Board member Don Elliott said the proposal he backed "dismantles an enormous amount of inequity and racial bias."

Critics, including some of the hundreds of people who logged comments with the city, said the proposal attempts to do too much at once, was crafted with insufficient community input, and would change parts of the city by making them more crowded.

Tonia Wilson, who was among the 74 people from across Denver and beyond who signed up to speak Wednesday, said it was a matter of safety.

"I will not accept that prisoners could live in my neighborhood next to me," Wilson said, adding that she had been the victim of a crime committed by a parolee.

Jason Hornyak told the Planning Board that the changes would allow younger people to do what he did not know was illegal when he arrived in Denver as a recent college graduate: pool resources with others to be able to afford a home and start a life here. Referring to the city Community Planning and Development department that created the amendment, Hornyak said: "Cheers to CPD for making Denver a more equitable city."

Proponents said changes, such as those envisioned in Denver, can decrease housing costs, address questions of equity, and even help fight climate change. But in a weekend op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, President Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who is Trump's housing secretary, decried what they see as the left's "relentless push for more high-density housing in single-family residential neighborhoods."

"Minneapolis abolished single-family zoning this year -- a few months before it voted to abolish the police force," Trump and Carson wrote. "Oregon outlawed single-family zoning last year. For the past three years, the state senator who represents Speaker Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco has led a push to abolish single-family zoning in California."

City Councilwoman-at-large Robin Kniech has championed the effort to revise the group-living zoning codes. She looked to history in a Denver Post op-ed last weekend.:

"As 'white only' covenants were struck down, neighborhoods and cities developed racially neutral zoning that continued to segregate by prohibiting ways of living that were more common among black residents, including larger family sizes," Kniech wrote. "Uses considered undesirable, like community corrections or shelters, were allowed near predominately non-white neighborhoods -- where they remain today. But the same sized residential care for seniors or people with disabilities was also allowed in single-family areas -- demonstrating that group residential care can coexist with single-family housing and that our zoning code is based more on perceptions about occupants than on impacts related to size or format."

Kniech addressed the planning board Wednesday, saying Denver needed to consider such questions as whether vulnerable communities should have access to jobs and grocery stores, and whether people who have been incarcerated deserved a second chance.

Gov. Jared Polis has encouraged local governments to suspend or eliminate restrictions on the number of unrelated people who can live in one household to ensure more people are housed during the pandemic.

Laura Brudzynski, a Denver housing department deputy director, spoke in favor of the proposed zoning changes, saying they would help integrate affordable housing options and lower barriers to building shelters.

Correction: Due to a reporter's error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the final vote. The vote was 8-0, with one member not voting.

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