Article

Housing Policy, Group Living, Zoning Code and Regulations

By: Andrew Webb, Senior City Planner, City & County of Denver

As demand grows for unique residential options like tiny house villages, cooperative housing and adult dorms, Denver City Planners aim to meet it by overhauling and modernizing zoning regulations that govern how people live together.

In recent years, the city has seen rising interest in nontraditional housing, in part because of the increasing cost of housing in the city and the region. Moreover, new efforts to address homelessness, encourage aging in place, and acknowledge the changing composition of households have highlighted constraints caused by outdated zoning regulations, some dating back decades. Guided by national trends and best practices, as well as adopted city policies to expand housing options, the city began work with an advisory committee of residents, neighborhood representatives and providers in 2018 to evaluate the Denver Zoning Code’s rules for household and group living. As the project enters the final stretch, zoning rules could change for households, boarding houses, community corrections facilities, shelters for the homeless, residential care homes, assisted living, cooperatives (co-ops), tiny home villages and more.

Last year’s “problem identification” phase uncovered many challenges in the code, including: 

  • Unintended consequences of regulations, such as difficulty establishing new large residential facilities near transit and other services because of zoning, spacing and density limitations.
  • Lack of clear ways for new or reemerging housing types to become legal. Examples include: tiny house villages, cooperative housing (co-ops), and commercial/industrial buildings converted into live-work space for artists or others.
  • Confusing language, such as the inconsistent use of “bed” and “resident” as a measure of the size of a shelter and geographic caps on shelter capacity in City Council districts, which change regularly as part of required redistricting.

An overarching issue uncovered during this process is the city’s current limitations on how many unrelated people can live in a home – capped at 2 in a typical single-family home. Like many cities, Denver’s regulations on household size reflect a nationwide post-World War II evolution toward “single family” zoning, aimed at reducing rental of rooms or units and limiting unrelated people from living together. While Denver’s code maintains a specific list of permitted relatives dating to the 1960s, many U.S. cities have updated these codes to acknowledge evolving notions of “family” and allow people to purchase or rent a home together regardless of their relationship.

During a series of late 2018 meetings, the Group Living Advisory Committee proposed a major rework of this requirement that moves away from treating related and unrelated adults differently. In 2019, the Committee has been working with the city on draft proposals to solve the other code “problems they identified, including regulations for tiny home villages, reorganization of confusing shelter definitions and regulations, reduction of off-street parking requirements to allow expansion of assisted living facilities and other updates. This work is expected to continue through the summer, with a package of Zoning Code amendments proposed for adoption through the city’s public process in the fall. For more information, visit www.denvergov.org/groupliving.

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