A proposal to modernize Denver zoning rules on group living could prove a useful tool as the city combats the wave of joblessness and eviction notices in the fervor of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Denver plan would allow more people — five unrelated occupants and any number of their relatives — to live under the same roof. Current city law limits city households to two. The spirit of the proposal being those struggling with housing affordability and instability could pool resources to cover the cost of a house or apartment.
The plan has been in the works for two years as a means to refresh the city’s zoning code and address housing equality and affordability but “the pandemic has made the need to modernize the zoning code much more acute as more people are being impacted by job losses and possible evictions,” Denver Community Planning and Development Communications Director Laura Swartz said in an email to Colorado Politics.
The plan would also update rules for group living facilities like sober living, halfway homes and shelters so they can better respond to emergency needs, among other changes.
“What we’re seeing now with the pandemic and subsequent job losses and a wave of evictions is only exacerbating problems we’ve been seeing in Denver for years,” Swartz added.
However, more group-living in Denver has the potential to exacerbate the transmission rate of COVID-19 in Denver. That is according to Glen Mays, professor and chair of the Department of Health Systems, Management & Policy for the Colorado School of Public Health on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Mays is part of a team working on COVID-19 transmission rate modeling, analysis, consultation and strategies for the state and local municipalities including Denver.
Mays conceded there isn’t much data on transmission rates of different household structures, but postulated a large household of unrelated residents may be more likely to venture into a range of different environments, including workplaces, grocery stores, etc. — increasing the opportunity of contracting and bringing the virus into the household — than a residence of related people.
“It’s difficult to quantify the increase in risk, but there could be some increased likelihood,” Mays said.
Recent numbers have Denver County confirmed cases at nearly 9,000 and more than 400 deaths dating back to March. The state has reported nearly 43,000 cases with 1,661 deaths over that time period.
Balancing the potential increased risk of transmission through the Denver proposal against mitigating homelessness — one of the focuses of the plan — Mays said those experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus and enabling Denverites to retain housing may be a "protective factor" that could otherwise offset any potential risk.
Should the new zoning rules see approval, Mays said his team would attempt to factor in the Denver policy change into broader transmission rate modeling, though it's often difficult to obtain hard data for risk factors such as unrelated people living under the same roof.
Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech dismissed Mays’ comments as a lot of assumptions.
Kniech said the zoning rules update would place Denver in line with other Front Range municipalities and existing state and federal regulations regarding group living and there's no evidence those standards have contributed to increased transmission rates. Homelessness is the greater risk to public health, Kniech said.
City officials say the plan is a move toward more “equitable, affordable and inclusive housing,” especially in light of the burgeoning crisis of job losses and evictions in Denver. In April, the state’s unemployment rate reached 11.3% as many municipalities went into lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.
“Many people struggle with housing affordability, instability, and lack of access to the supportive services they need, and the zoning changes the city is proposing would get to the heart of removing these barriers,” Swartz said.
Existing codes capping homes to two unrelated people date back to the 1980s and are rooted in discriminatory practices, officials say.
“Before that, you couldn’t even have 2 unrelated people in a house together, a code that was used to keep same-sex couples and unmarried interracial couples out of neighborhoods,” Swartz said.
Under the proposal, a household could increase beyond the five unrelated people. For every additional 200 feet of finished floor area beyond 1600 feet, a residence may add additional unrelated people, not to exceed 10. Each unrelated person may have any number or relatives living with them.
The plan would also require new off-street parking be established for households of six or more. Additionally, the pact states “residents shall have jointly chosen to occupy the entire home and live as a nonprofit housekeeping unit,” prohibiting scenarios like rent-by-the-room. All homes would be required to have interconnected smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems for fire suppression in homes of more than 10 residents.
The plan will also alter rules around shelters, halfway homes and sober living including increasing bed capacity during a short period of time in an emergency, where facilities can be located and categorizing facilities regulated by size and impact, not who they serve.
In May, the city scaled back its proposal from eight to five unrelated people after public criticism over the initial plan.
The proposal will next go before the city’s Planning Board, and subsequently the Denver City Council, this fall.