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My Former Roommates and I Had No Idea Our Living Situation Was Technically Illegal

Until last month, it was unlawful for more than two unrelated people to reside in a single-family home in Denver—even if the rule wasn't widely known. Will adjusting the ordinance change the character of the Mile High City?

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In September 2017, I moved into a small house in Denver’s Sloan’s Lake neighborhood with two of my friends. All three of us had recently either moved back to the city or were new to it, and none of us were making very much money. That meant the only way we could afford to live anywhere near downtown—where all of us worked—was to shack up together. 

We really liked the house we found. The actual living area was a bit small, but we had a great backyard, were just a few blocks from Sloan’s Lake and all sorts of restaurants and bars, and we had great neighbors. Those neighbors even tolerated our 26-year-old antics. We were noisy and known to leave the occasional beer can or 10 on our front porch after a weekend evening. We loved the neighborhood so much, though, that when the owners of the house decided they wanted to move back in at the end of our lease, we relocated to a similar place just a few blocks away. But even though we didn’t realize it at the time, what we were doing was technically illegal. 

Until last month, it was unlawful for more than two unrelated individuals to inhabit a single-family home in Denver. That all changed on February 8, when the Denver City Council voted 11–2 to raise the limit from two to five. The Council’s decision also adapted the zoning code to make it easier for residential-care facilities, such as halfway houses and homeless shelters, to be set up in commercial or mixed-use neighborhoods throughout the city. 

Neither my roommates or I had any idea that ordinance existed until we saw news articles mentioning that the Denver City Council was considering changing it. And we had questions: Should our landlords have informed us that what we were doing was technically unlawful? Would we have been forced to move out if someone reported us? Were we the only people that didn’t know such a law existed? 

Turns out the most recent version of the ordinance had been on the books since the late 1980s, and it had been designed to keep low-income residents from renting homes in single-family neighborhoods. In other words, it reinforced discrimination. That means my former roommates and I’s lack of knowledge about it was likely evidence of our privilege. We are all white, heterosexual males. One of them suggested we probably would’ve tried to live a little quieter had we known about the code. We also wondered if our raucous St. Patrick’s Day party or us constantly hitting wiffle balls into our neighbors’ backyards would have been greeted differently if we didn’t fit the neighborhood demographics.

The law, however, had been flying under the radar for plenty of other people. There were only 580 cases of “too-many-unrelated occupants” reported to the city’s 311 system between January 2016 and August 2020, according to Laura Swartz, director of communications for the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development. A map the city provided of where the complaints occurred shows that the cases were pretty evenly spread across all 11 City Council districts. There was no overwhelming cluster in one specific neighborhood. 

When the city would follow up on such calls, Swartz says the aim was always to avoid evicting people. “Our goal is really to work with property owners and figure out how much time do you need for someone to move out and find new housing,” she says. “Property owners could be subject to fines starting at $150 if they continue to allow too-many-unrelated occupants. It’s really not a code anyone enjoyed enforcing.”

Brandon Scholten, owner of Keyrenter Denver, agrees that the city didn’t seem too interested in imposing the law. His company manages 367 properties in the Mile High City—many of which house more residents than the ordinance previously allowed—but he can’t remember a time he ever had to deal with Denver trying to enforce it. He says his team would often let property owners know they may be at risk of getting a ticket, but it wasn’t common practice to inform tenants there could be problems because the company never had to deal with one. “We always had to be careful we didn’t rent to a rowdy group of 22-year-olds. That makes the risk go up more and more,” says Scholten. “The thought was if something really blows up maybe the owner gets a ticket, maybe we have to work out a mutual resolution with the tenants, but nothing too serious.” 

Richard Sturtevant, managing broker at Pioneer Property Management, did have one group of renters receive a complaint. The situation was remedied by applying for a variance permit—which required a small fee to be paid—that allowed more than two people to continue living at the property.  “It was all very easy and straightforward,” says Sturtevant. 

Neither of our former landlords responded to inquiries about what they knew about the law.

It’s hard to know how many people were technically living illegally prior to the law changing earlier this month. Anecdotally, I have plenty of friends who lived in single-family homes with more than two unrelated roommates inside the Denver city limits at some point during the past few years. (Of note: Up to four unrelated people were allowed to live together in a condo or apartment, likely because such units are only zoned for certain areas of the city.) Scholten’s experience also makes him think the number is probably quite high. “I lived in Capitol Hill,” he says. “If they had really decided to start enforcing things, they would have evicted half the town.” 

As part of research presented to the City Council before it voted on raising the limit of unrelated people to five, the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development, which supported the change, found that the average household size in the Mile High City was 2.31 people. In Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon—both similar-sized cities to Denver—six unrelated people can live in a single-family home. The average household size in those locales is 2.47 (Austin) and 2.36 (Portland). Also, Seattle’s limit is eight, yet the average household size is only 2.12. 

“Zoning codes don’t change how people live together,” says Swartz. “It can be used to penalize people, or it can be used to allow legal housing.” 

After hearing complaints from folks that raising the limit would harm their property values, the Department of Community Planning and Development also pulled research on cities where homes are worth the most. The cap on unrelated tenants in Aspen, Telluride, and Crested Butte is five. It’s also five in West Haven, Connecticut. Beverly Hills, California has no regulations. In fact, no other major city in the country has limits as low as Denver previously did.

Property value wasn’t the only issue that opponents brought up, though. As the amendment was being debated throughout the fall and early winter, there was a contingent of residents who argued that raising the number of unrelated occupants was just a way for the city to sneak in the second part of the amendment, which allows for homeless shelters and halfway houses to be built in new neighborhoods. Senior city planner Andrew Webb responded to such claims by saying the adjustment was unlikely to lead to establishment of a lot more of those facilities. 

Senior living communities were also already zoned for areas with single-family neighborhoods, a fact the city and other proponents highlighted as evidence that residential-care facilities already exist near large concentrations of families. “Our zoning code is based more on perceptions about occupants than on impacts related to size or format,” city councilwoman Robin Kniech wrote in a op-ed for the Denver Post last year.  

Critics, however, voiced problems with the amendment until the very end. During the February 8 meeting when the City Council voted to change the law, the public-comment section lasted multiple hours. One woman said adapting the ordinance would lead to “white flight,” and wondered how many pitbulls all the new Denver residents would have. Another opponent claimed she once lived next to a house with “four people on the lease, with 10 people living there, and 15 cars,” that the city didn’t do anything about. 

But more people spoke in favor of the amendment. A common refrain was that changing it would provide peace of mind for the many people who are living with more residents than allowed, especially given the financial hardships some are experiencing because of the pandemic. An overwhelming majority of the City Council ultimately approved the change.  

A month later, though, a group of residents have already organized an effort to rescind the amendment via a citywide referendum on the grounds that it will hurt their property value. “This affects their wealth. Their very wealth,” said George E. Mayl, one of the citizens hoping to get a potential repeal onto an upcoming ballot. “And not only that, their children’s, their heirs’ wealth. Someone’s home is their single largest investment of their life.”

In late February, pandemic-induced boredom led me to take a drive through the area of Sloan’s Lake where my former roommates and I used to live. (I am now living by myself by South Broadway.) As I approached the second house the three of us had all piled into together for a year, I slowed down to see if I could glimpse what the youngsters who now call it home were up to. While I was disappointed to not see a wiffle ball set up, they did appear to be enjoying each other’s company, making dinner. Even if they were unaware of anything to do with Denver’s zoning code, it was also nice to know they weren’t breaking any laws by doing so.

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