Could more roommates fix Denver’s housing crisis?

There are a few thousand more bedrooms than people in Denver, so technically, the answer is, yes. But are you willing to get a roommate?

The Union Denver on Chestnut Place. Dec. 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Union Denver on Chestnut Place. Dec. 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

kyle harris

Finding an affordable place to live in Denver has become notoriously difficult. Many old-timers have been priced out, and newcomers have arrived, panicked and left. Homelessness is rising, people are sleeping on the streets, and the economy isn’t exactly improving — even if the housing market is cooling off.

We collectively punt the problem to policymakers, developers, registered neighborhood organizations — and pretty much anybody but ourselves. Real-estate profiteers and their acolytes preach: This is a problem of supply and demand, and we must build, build, build our way out of the crisis.

But can people with housing in Denver help? Maybe.

What solutions are currently on the table?

For the market to normalize, the metro area needs approximately 130,000 more homes, according to Drew Hamrick of the landlord trade group the Colorado Apartment Association. Earlier this year, David Nisivoccia, head of the Denver Housing Authority, told Denverite the city is behind 55,000 units of income-restricted housing.

Denver City Councilmembers, including Chris Herndon, are working toward what he calls “gentle density,” pushing for accessory dwelling units in residential neighborhoods where they are currently not permitted. Council just voted to amend the city’s zoning code to mandate developers participate in solving the affordable housing crisis in how they build.

Many developers clamor for fewer rules and faster permitting times. And groups like YIMBY Denver argue the city should go further and “legalize housing,” or get rid of exclusionary zoning in all neighborhoods that prohibit multi-family builds — a proposal many registered neighborhood organizations vociferously oppose in defense of single-family homes and ample parking.

We could solve the homelessness crisis overnight — many times over — if everybody with a home took on a roommate. Is that standard economic theory? Of course not. Is it a viable political platform? Not really. But, if people decided to do it, it could work.

Yet the law limits how many unrelated people can live together.

The current city code permits no more than five unrelated adults from sharing the same home. That’s more than it was a couple years ago. Before City Council passed its 2021 group living ordinance (which voters overwhelmingly re-affirmed after a group of residents tried to overturn it), only two unrelated adults could live together. Long before five unrelated adults could legally live together, and still today, some Denverites happily violate residential restrictions by taking on extra roommates in an effort to help with their mortgage.

If taking on a roommate to solve the housing crisis sounds untenable, groups like Home Share Oregon have actually rewarded homeowners who take on roommates with cash as one way of addressing that state’s housing crisis. And there was a failed proposal at the Colorado statehouse that would have given homeowners $500 per renter they housed.

All that’s good and well, but are there enough bedrooms for every person in the city to have one? Technically, yes.

Using data from January 2021, City of Denver Assessor Keith Erffmeyer tallied up all the bedrooms in apartments and houses, omitting one-off lodging like motel rooms. His tally does not include informal bedrooms that don’t meet the standards of code, like basement rooms without an egress window or spaces that are too small to qualify (but where people might still live).

Erffmeyer calculated there are currently 715,840 bedrooms in Denver. There were 711,463 residents as of July 2021, which had dropped .6% from 715,522 in April 2020, according to Census data.

Based on those numbers, if every Denverite had a bedroom, there would still be 4,377 sitting empty.

But sheltering everybody would require some people to sacrifice space, and they might want to use their extra bedrooms for other purposes. Many bedrooms have been converted into offices since working from home became more popular during the pandemic. Some extra bedrooms are used as libraries, guest bedrooms and storage.

Can one household fix the city’s problem? No. But Denverites with homes have to ask if it’s better to wait for developers to create enough supply to meet the demand or simply open up rooms for people who need housing now.

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