Compass

Are Co-Ops the Answer to Expensive Housing?

Co-housing and cooperative living offer community-focused alternatives to high rents in the Denver and Boulder areas.

November 2016

—Courtesy of Studio PBA

Living with roommates is no longer just for college kids and Denver’s expanding millennial population. As builders struggle to keep up with the Mile High City’s housing demand and already-eyebrow-raising rents continue to climb, co-housing and cooperatives are becoming more popular options for Denverites of all ages. 

Don’t panic. Neither of these arrangements means cozying up in the same room with a stranger. In co-housing setups, occupants live (and sleep and bathe) in separate units. The developments circle common areas where residents meet for events—like condo complexes of the ’80s with the community element on steroids. Hearthstone Cohousing in Highland, for example, contains townhomes clustered around a lawn used for concerts and barbecues. At Aria Cohousing Community, a 28-unit condo complex set to open this spring in northwest Denver, a campus of 17.5 acres includes gardens and a greenhouse, where residents can take classes about seed starting and beekeeping.

Co-ops, on the other hand, are usually established in a single home. To wit: Capitol Hill’s Queen City Cooperative, launched in a renovated mansion last year, houses six residents who share food and are jointly responsible for maintaining the property. The biggest obstacles for these kinds of co-ops are Colorado’s maximum occupancy laws, which restrict the number of nonfamilial residents living in a single unit—as in, a residence with its own living spaces, such as bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens—to four or fewer in most neighborhoods. (Queen City’s building is designated as multi-unit.) Technically, anyone violating the rule can be evicted, although the law is rarely enforced unless neighbors start complaining.

In light of the current housing crunch, communal living advocates are working to adjust these laws. The Boulder Housing Coalition (BHC) hopes to convince the Boulder City Council to pass a new ordinance that would expand the conditions under which co-ops can exist. The change would allow residents to apply for a permit that—with the authorization of the landlord and a certified co-op group—lets them skirt the max occupancy rules if they abide by a limit of one person per 150 square feet. 

If the council doesn’t bite, there are other options. In recent years, BHC has created sanctioned co-op housing by using affordable housing grants to rezone and remodel two old homes—near the Flatirons and downtown—and an apartment building in central Boulder. (These are now called Masala, Chrysalis, and Ostara, respectively.) If rents don’t begin to drop in Denver soon, you might see more of these rezoning projects in your neighborhood, too.