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Colorado poised to ban cities’ limits on how many people can live together

Colorado lawmakers are poised to ban occupancy limits in cities and towns across the state, clearing the way for more roommates to live together as part of Democrats’ push to reform local zoning regulations and address the state’s housing crisis.

Roughly two dozen cities and towns in Colorado have the type of occupancy limits that would be prohibited under HB24-1007, which cleared the state Senate on Tuesday. The measure would prohibit local governments from limiting how many unrelated people can live in one home or housing unit, except for health and safety reasons.

Pending anticipated final approval from the House, the bill next heads to Gov. Jared Polis, who is expected to sign it. If and when the bill becomes law, it would be the second land-use bill enacted since the governor and lawmakers began publicly advocating for reforms last year (a bill banning growth limits became law after last session).

“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re in a housing crisis,” Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, told fellow senators Monday. She’s sponsoring the bill with fellow Democrats Sen. Tony Exum and Reps. Javier Mabrey and Manny Rutinel. “It’s already happening: People are scrounging together to make ends up meet and doubling up and living together. This bill reflects the reality that is already happening in every community across this state.”

Though more than two dozens Colorado cities have some form of occupancy limits, Rutinel said that only a few actively enforce them. That includes college towns such as Fort Collins, where the maximum is three unrelated people, and Boulder, which recently raised its limit to five people in some areas and kept it to three or four elsewhere.

Boulder spokeswoman Cate Stanek said the city hadn’t taken a position on the bill and she declined to comment on its potential impacts. Ginny Sawyer, Fort Collins’ policy and project manager, said the city had been studying how to raise its occupancy limits — with public support and opposition — when the bill was introduced.

“I think a lot of folks in our community will be really happy with this. We have to see how it plays out,” she said. “And it’s been interesting — we’ve had a lot of conversations (about) how do people want to live? Do they want to live bunked up, multiple people in rooms? I don’t think that’s really what we’ve heard. I think people just want to use the number of bedrooms in a home.”

Supporters argue that the occupancy limits are arbitrary and have a history in discriminatory zoning laws, and that the limits prevent tenants from living together in larger groups. That, in turn, would allow cash-strapped tenants to take on more roommates to share the burden of high housing costs.

The overall goal of the land-use reforms is to allow for more development, particularly near transit areas, and for more housing options amid a combined affordability and availability crisis. The state is short tens of thousands of housing units, and a survey from last summer found that nearly half of the state’s renters feared losing their housing because of high costs.

The White House has embraced the land-use reform approach, too: In a white paper released Thursday, the Biden administration noted that certain local zoning rules — like occupancy limits — contribute to restricted housing supply.

Still, local governments — together with Republicans and some Democrats — have opposed the bill and its fellow land-use reform efforts as state government overreach.

“What this bill is about at its core, the foundational question, is power,” said Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen. Lundeen represents Monument, which was one of several cities that opposed ending occupancy limits.

He asked if local land use decisions should be made at the state level. “Or does it, like all land use, zoning and occupancy-type measures, belong with the localities? The place where folks can go down and, quite frankly, interact with their neighbors, interact with the people they have elected to provide for the circumstances of their existence?”

Sen. Joann Ginal, a Fort Collins Democrat who opposed the bill, read letters from constituents opposing changes to occupancy limits. She and other critics argued that allowing for more people in one home or unit would negatively effect the character of neighborhoods that homeowners desired because of their low density.

Mabrey, the Denver Democrat co-sponsoring the bill, argued during a hearing last month that the “neighborhood character” concern — a frequent criticism leveled against zoning reforms — was a “dog whistle.”

“In the middle of such a crisis, our local governments should not be limiting available housing through arbitrary and discriminatory occupancy limits,” he said. “We need more housing options, not fewer.”

The bill was initially only a few pages, but Rutinel and Mabrey added in a legislative declaration — essentially an argument for why the bill should be adopted. The Senate later stripped that language. That means that the House must now vote to accept that change or negotiate it further before sending it to Polis. Mabrey said Thursday he was still deciding how to proceed.

Either way, the bill is expected to pass and then be signed by the governor. It would be the first of the land-use reform bills to be adopted this year. Lawmakers and Polis’ first attempt at reform, a mega-bill debated last year, collapsed in the dying hours of the 2023 legislative session.

“Governor Polis looks forward to getting the government out of the business of telling (you) who you can and can’t live with, and signing this legislation and breaking down barriers to more housing that Coloradans can afford,” Polis spokeswoman Shelby Wieman said in a statement.

Wieman said that Polis was pleased with the imminent passage of the occupancy limits bill, but “there is more work to be done.” Three other bills in this year’s package are all still relatively early in the process. They include a bipartisan bill to allow accessory-dwelling units to be built across the Front Range; a bill to eliminate parking requirements in cities; and a bill that seeks to incentivize — and later require — denser development near transit areas.

All three of those bills have passed their first committees in the House, and now all await votes in secondary committees before moving to the House floor. All are likely to pass that chamber before hitting the Senate, where disagreements among moderate and progressive Democrats sank last year’s reforms.

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