This coming Tuesday, City Council will have a “2nd reading” of a proposed new ordinance to allow “co-ops” in single-family residential neighborhoods. It would allow up to 15 “co-ops” per year in single-family residential neighborhoods.

Communal living options such as co-ops and boarding houses (which are not substantively different) have been allowed in Boulder for many years in a variety of higher density neighborhoods, but not in single-family neighborhoods. That makes sense because they are higher density occupancies. Current City zoning provides for a variety of occupancy types and housing choices. This ordinance begins the unraveling of our zoning by enabling the spread of higher density occupancies into single-family neighborhoods. Proponents of this ordinance, by seeking to place higher density occupancies in single-family neighborhoods, are essentially asking the community to give them access to a sector of the housing market that they can’t pay for themselves.

That may be something the community is willing to do if permanently affordable housing for people who need it is the outcome of the ordinance. But that isn’t the case.

PLAN-Boulder County does not support this ordinance in its current form. It falls short of serving broader community permanently affordable housing needs while concurrently asking the community to bear inequitable impacts.

PLAN-Boulder County could support a pilot of 3 equity only co-ops (owner occupied) in single-family residential zones in order to learn what works. In such a pilot, existing illegal co-ops could be given priority in applying for the pilot and those not accepted would be required to come into compliance with current occupancy laws. Our recommendation to limit co-ops in single-family residential neighborhoods to equity co-ops is based on the City’s poor record of enforcement. Having skin–in-the-game is will result in lower impacts from co-ops on neighbors and neighborhoods. Since co-ops and boarding houses are already allowed in higher density residential zones, rental and non-profit co-ops are therefore already adequately provided for under existing law.

We would support such a pilot ONLY if the following issues are addressed as part of the pilot:

1. Robustly address our permanently affordable housing needs. Equity co-ops must be deed restricted so that they become increasingly affordable over time and become part of a permanently affordable housing pool. Given that the ordinance asks the community to grant access to a housing type that is not otherwise available to the beneficiaries, it is reasonable that in return, the beneficiaries “pay forward” via deed restrictions to ensure that future co-op residents also have that access.

2. Limit the impacts on neighbors and neighborhoods. The proposed 12 occupant limit has much too high an impact on neighborhoods with typical 7000 sf or smaller lot sizes. We recommend limiting occupancy of pilot co-ops in single-family neighborhoods based on their proximity to neighbors so that the maximum occupancy will be 8 on 7000 square foot lots, higher on larger lots and lower on smaller lots.

If the pilot is a proven success and advances to a broader application, we recommend limiting co-ops in single-family neighborhoods to one per block. Allowing multiple co-ops in one block will unjustly negatively impact adjacent and nearby property owners.

3. Demonstrate a robust and effective enforcement mechanism, including rigorously enforcing occupancy violations in other houses such as illegally over-occupied group houses and illegal co-ops before expanding co-ops beyond the pilot phase. The City has a very poor record with housing code enforcement with regard to occupancy, maintenance of premises and unruly conduct. Most recently, its enforcement of the new short-term rental ordinance has been lacking. The proposed enforcement will be impossible to implement. The City must provide neighbors and neighborhoods with assurances through an enforcement plan that has citizen input. Additionally, the proposed $1000 maximum penalty for a 3rd violation will have little deterrent effect; we think it should be at least double that.

Citizens should understand what this ordinance effectively does. It is a density increase in single-family residential neighborhoods that is being made available to a very select group of people. It has met resistance from neighborhoods because it will have impacts and those impacts have real costs to neighbors and neighborhoods. Someone will end up suffering those impacts and paying those costs. With the appropriate amount of community benefits that equitably address the tradeoffs between neighborhood impacts and affordability, it can be a useful step in addressing our permanently affordable housing needs. However, as proposed, the ordinance achieves little community benefit, but asks a lot from neighbors and neighborhoods.

PLAN-Boulder County

PLAN-Boulder County (PBC) is the leading citizens’ organization working to ensure environmental sustainability in the City of Boulder and across Boulder County.