A controversial proposal that would update Denver’s zoning requirements on who can live together under one roof continues to meet fierce opposition, including from the majority of City Council members.
The plan, which has been in the works for more than two years, would allow more people to share a single-family home, bumping the number of allowable unrelated occupants from two to five, along with any number of their relatives. A maximum of 10 unrelated adults would be allowed in houses 2,600 square feet or larger.
The goal, planners have said from the beginning, is to increase flexibility and housing options for residents living in Denver, the second-most gentrified city in the country; to streamline permitting processes for providers; and to make it easier for those experiencing homelessness, trying to get sober or who have other special needs to live and access services.
“Opening new opportunities for more housing options is key to addressing our city’s housing needs, and that need for those housing options has only grown more urgent in the wake of COVID-19,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement Aug. 19. “It’s more important than ever that we have a zoning code that reflects how people live now, as well as the values of the more equitable city we want to live in.”
Many residents argue, however, that the change could lead to unsafe neighborhoods, overcrowding, noise, inadequate home maintenance, scarce parking, unfamiliar neighbors and negative impacts on property values.
On Sept. 1, Andrew Webb, the senior city planner for Denver’s Community Planning and Development Department, met with City Council’s land use committee to give a briefing on the proposal.
When he initially scheduled the meeting, he intended for the proposal to be a committee action item rather than a presentation, so it could be referred to the full floor of Denver City Council later this month. However, he was told he would need to hit the brakes for more discussion, and the soonest it could be formally considered to advance is Oct. 6.
The reason? “This should have been slowed down,” Councilman Kevin Flynn scolded Webb.
“I think this discussion shows us that this is pretty much a seriously flawed process lacking in equitable engagement, perhaps fatally flawed,” Flynn said. “Seven of us twice requested when COVID hit that this be slowed down because the public engagement had been cut off precipitously. Instead, you forged ahead without regard to the fact that, from that point on, the public could only react to what was drawn up rather than having authentic input into what would be drawn up.”
Councilwoman Kendra Black shared similar concerns and said the proposal has been “very difficult to get a handle on,” for her and for her constituents, because of its size and complexity.
Not only does the proposal apply to households, but it also impacts residential care and community corrections facilities, as well as homeless shelters and halfway houses.
Councilman Paul Kashmann of District 6, which includes the University of Denver, also said the proposal was unclear. He went on to say that his community has struggled for decades to keep student housing under control, because students “tend to cram as many as they can and aren’t always the best or most considerate neighbors.”
If advanced as written, Kashmann said, “I would expect … we’ll have de facto fraternity and sorority houses frequently through the neighborhood, and, historically, they have proven to be problems for the community.”
When it was Council President Stacie Gilmore’s turn to speak up, she didn’t try to hide how livid she was. Gilmore represents District 11 in far northeast Denver, an area many minority residents call home.
“There was no representation from District 11,” she said, highlighting the fact that 75% of her community is governed under old zoning code, meaning they would be excluded from the updates altogether.
“Two-and-a-half years is quick if you’re trying to undo historic systemic racism in housing,” Gilmore told Webb. “There have been some, quite honestly, missteps in true, authentic engagement of Black and brown communities, and this is indicative of it.
“Andrew, for me and my constituents, it feels very systematic that we did not have Black representation,” she said.
Webb said he and his team worked diligently to engage the community, from holding a series of town halls to seeking involvement from registered neighborhood organizations to asking every council member’s office to recommend people to sit on the project’s advisory committee, a request he said went unanswered by some. He also emphasized the diversity of the advisory committee.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who had been closely involved in shaping the proposal, was the only council member who spoke up in support of CPD’s efforts.
“I don’t want us to devalue the conversations of some folks we’ve heard from,” she said. “I don’t know how any city staffer meets the standard of every person. Literally, some people today said every person in the city should be at the table. That is a tough bar to hold.”
She pointed to CPD data that shows 2% of Denver households have six or more people living in them and that 80% of those residents are people of color, meaning they could benefit from zoning updates.
Kniech also spoke of the urgency of homelessness, which was already a crisis pre-pandemic and is only expected to worsen due to joblessness and subsequent evictions.
“I’m a little concerned by the calls that might say, ‘Start over,’ because I don’t think folks with code enforcement at their door in the middle of a pandemic deserve to pay the price for flaws in a process. I believe they deserve a right to live with dignity in our city,” she said holding back tears.
Webb is tentatively scheduled to meet with City Council’s land use committee again on Sept. 29 to continue the discussion in more detail. The proposal is currently scheduled to be considered by the committee on Oct. 6, when members will decide whether to advance the proposal to the full council for a vote.
This story is from Colorado Politics, a statewide political and public policy news journal. Used by permission. For more, visit coloradopolitics.com.
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