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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Increasing occupancy limits is one piece of the housing crisis puzzle

This past week, the City Council once again took a look at updating Boulder’s occupancy limits. The limits, like all things housing in Boulder, have become a divisive but ever-present issue. 

In 2021, Bedrooms Are For People — a ballot measure that tied occupancy limits to the number of rooms in a residence, plus one — failed at the polls, 48% to 52%. But even as the measure failed, opponents of the effort conceded that occupancy limits had to be addressed — just in a different manner. 

Today, with our housing situation in even worse shape than it was just 16-odd months ago, now is the time to find that different manner and update Boulder’s occupancy limits to help confront the crisis at hand. 

Boulder’s code currently limits occupancy to either three or four unrelated people per residence. In low- and medium-density zones, three people are allowed. In high-density zones, such as apartment complexes, four people are allowed. 

(The federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination based on familial status, prevents occupancy limits from applying when the tenants are related.)

So far, the council appears to be leaning toward a simple update, inching up the limits to four and five people, respective to density zones. 

Such updates would not upend the rental market in Boulder. Young workers would not suddenly overrun our neighborhoods. Students would not suddenly flood our apartment complexes. But allowing for a new roommate here or there would provide tenants across the city with more options, while also helping some renters alleviate the burdensome cost of rent. 

And right now, rent is becoming an ever more exhausting burden.

Here in Boulder — and all across the country — high rents are straining wallets and forcing tenants into making damaging spending choices: The more someone spends on rent, the less they have available for other essential necessities, such as food, clothing, health care and transportation.

To be rent-burdened is to spend more than 30% of your income on rent, something the average American renter is doing for the first time in the 20 years Moody’s Analytics has been tracking the metric. And more locally, a New Era Colorado poll found that 60% of young households in Boulder County were rent burdened. 

Upping Boulder’s occupancy limits could attack this problem on two fronts. First, allowing an additional person into a home would allow tenants to split the rent another way and hopefully relieve some financial stress. And second, it would, in a manner, provide an injection of stock into the housing market, which could potentially help to lower rents by creating more options for renters. 

Here, some will argue that landlords could simply increase the rent for each additional tenant, thus canceling out any potential savings from adding another roommate. Ideally, though, as we continue to endeavor to find solutions to our housing crisis, more housing stock will continue to come online and renters will continue to have more choices, thus pushing landlords to provide competitive — and fair — rents. 

Still, many will understandably have concerns about increasing occupancy limits. It is imperative, though, we approach these concerns with reasonable fears and expectations. 

Despite some claims from those working to slow Boulder’s growth, no one wants to see our population explode. Nobody wants houses and apartments stuffed to the gills with students. Most of us, in fact, appreciate the relative tranquility of our neighborhoods and apartment complexes. 

And the truth is, adding one new face to a residence is unlikely to upend neighborhood cohesion or tranquility. And a few new faces in an apartment complex won’t undo the social fabric of our city. 

Increasing our occupancy limits, though, could provide hundreds of workers and students with the ability to live here. 

If you recoil at this notion — hundreds of people moving to Boulder — consider the fact that many of them could be people who already spend their days working or studying, or both, here in Boulder. Tens of thousands of people commute into Boulder each and every day to contribute to the vitality and community that make our city great without being afforded the opportunity to live here and enjoy the perks they help to create — both because it is too expensive and because there simply isn’t enough housing. 

For those who worry about the environmental effects of a growing population — more traffic, more emissions — remember that providing local homes for the students and workers who already commute into Boulder every day could actually help to reduce traffic and emissions by getting those cars off of U.S. 36 and Colo. 93 and the Diagonal Highway and providing people with more opportunities to bike or bus or walk. Gradually increasing density does not mean increasing pollution

Of course, expanding Boulder’s occupancy limits will not be the solution to our housing crisis. It will not single-handedly lower rent for all of our rent-burdened population. It will not provide enough housing stock for all the workers and students vying to live here. It will not end our dreaded growth conversation. 

But, increasing our occupancy limits can be part of the solution. It can be part of the patchwork of initiatives that will help make our fair city a bit fairer for those who can’t afford the $1.3 million average home, but who help make this city such a great place to live. 

Not every change is going to be painless for everyone. But doing what we can where we can to ease our housing crisis and provide options for everyone in our community to flourish is something we should all be able to agree on. 

—Gary Garrison for the Editorial Board

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