Denver City Council considers code changes for group living requirements, halfway houses

The Denver City Council is considering several code changes to help those in need of affordable housing and different types of residential care, though some feel strongly the issues should wait or be shot down entirely.

The first change would allow up to five unrelated people to live together in the same home, said Andrew Webb, senior city planner. And the second would expand the number of places where residential care facilities — like nursing homes and community corrections facilities — can be located.

Both proposals, which would come as updates to the city’s zoning code, have been in the works for years, Webb said, and the final products going before council now are the result of many public meetings and compromises between council members and city staff.

But neither the city’s affordable housing crisis nor problems with residential care facilities are new, said Green Valley Ranch resident Gail Bell. And since the pandemic began, many residents have been too occupied with their safety and personal wellbeing to fully participate in this process. Rather than moving ahead now, the city should postpone any concrete action for another six months or so, she said.

Group living

Currently, city code mandates that only two unrelated people can live together in the same home, Webb said. That limit — among the lowest in the country — prevents many from legally finding affordable housing in Denver, he said.

Allowing more people to live in the same homes encourages rent-sharing and could ultimately lower the cost of living in the city for many residents, Webb said.

Originally the idea was to allow up to eight unrelated people to live in the same home, but facing concerns from residents and others, that number was reduced to five, Webb said.

Among those concerns, Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said at a committee meeting Tuesday, is the increased number of vehicles in residential neighborhoods. But those concerns can be rooted in racism, Sandoval noted, because many of those who rely on their cars for work and transportation are people of color.

Plus, Sandoval said new investments in bike lanes and other multi-modal infrastructure could further alleviate concerns of increased traffic. This change, paired with other solutions like accessory dwelling units, can act as another tool for those looking to lessen the rent and mortgage burdens pressing down on Denverites.

But Councilman Kevin Flynn said he isn’t so sure this change would lower rents or mortgages.

“It doesn’t make housing affordable,” Flynn said. “It just makes it more affordable for people to cram five people into a unit.”

Similarly, Paige Burkholder and Florence Sebern, Southmoor Park and Virginia Village residents, respectively, voiced their skepticism and say they’d prefer both proposals be stopped. They launched the group Safe and Sound Denver in opposition to the measures.

Changing the group living code will only increase density in Denver without tangibly lowering any prices, they said.

Other groups, however, like nonprofits Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Enterprise Community Partners, alongside organizations like the Chaffee Park Neighborhood and the East Colfax Community Collective, voiced support for the group living and residential care proposals in a group letter to City Council members.

Residential care facilities

The next change would update the definition of a residential care facility and regulate them all the same, Webb said. This would place nursing homes, transitional housing, shelters and more in the same category and allow them all in the same places, he said.

This is most impactful for transitional housing or community correction centers, Webb said. These resources, also sometimes called halfway houses, are meant as residential sites for felons to receive supervision and treatment in a regulated environment while working to transition back into the community.

In short, those corrections facilities and shelters are only allowed in the city’s industrial areas and some places downtown, which are not necessarily the most effective locations for those hoping to stay on the straight and narrow, Webb said.

“This effectively keeps many of the people seeking such supported living situations away from the very transportation, employment opportunities, social service supports and community benefits necessary for their livelihood,” the collaboration of nonprofits and other local organizations wrote in their letter of support.

“Moreover, residential care sites and services are often concentrated in low-income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities throughout Denver,” the letter continues. “This places disproportionate strain on the public systems and services in these communities.”

Initially, the proposed change would have allowed those facilities in some residential areas, but many pushed back on that notion, Webb said. So the compromise would be to allow them along commercial corridors as well as the currently accepted zones.

This would increase the number of plots where such a care facility — of which there are only around 10 — can be located from 1,200 to 15,000, Webb said.

Flynn acknowledged that community correctional sites are treated differently than other residential care facilities but he also said that’s somewhat justified because those living in the facilities have a criminal history and are under the custody of the state Department of Corrections.

“I do believe that justifies a little more intentional approach,” Flynn said. “And I say that as the council member who has the most community correctional facility beds and clients in my district right now.”

Burkholder and Sebern said the change could allow some of those facilities in portions of residential neighborhoods, which they fear would inject a modicum of instability into the areas.

Next steps

The City Council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee agreed to send both proposals before the full body early next year for approval. The measures would require two affirmative votes and a public hearing in order to pass.

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