Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) A Colorado bill would prohibit cities from enacting limits on how many people can live together, one of the many efforts lawmakers are considering this year to address the state’s housing shortage.

House Bill 24-1007 would ban limits that are based on factors such as familial status and relationship. It would only allow occupancy limits tied to a dwelling’s square footage that are necessary for health and safety.

“Folks are getting priced out of their homes, and they’re not allowed to live in the ways that they want because of really arbitrary and arcane laws on the books in certain municipalities that are preventing folks from living with roommates or with distant family members,” Rep. Manny Rutinel, an Adams County Democrat, said. “This bill is all about making sure that folks have increased availability of affordable housing options. It’s about greater inclusivity for various different types of family and household structures.”

It is generally more affordable to rent a bedroom in a house and split utility costs with roommates than to rent a one-bedroom apartment. It is also a type of living some people prefer. Examples of cooperative housing structures include the Queen City Cooperative in Denver and the Chrysalis Cooperative in Boulder.

“We’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, and I think we need to encourage living arrangements that foster community and social connections. I think this bill will hopefully enable that,” Rutinel said.

Rutinel is running the bill with Democrats Rep. Javier Mabrey of Denver, Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Sen. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs. It has its first legislative hurdle on Jan. 30 with the House Transportation, Housing and Local Government Committee.

The bill was introduced this month on the first day of session with the initial batch of bills and got a shout-out from Gov. Jared Polis the next day as he spoke to the entire Legislature.

“Ending discriminatory occupancy limits that especially hurt renters is another important way that we can break down harmful barriers to housing and create more equity,” Polis said during his State of the State address, calling it an “important housing and civil rights issue.”

Some cities have already loosened rules

Elimination of occupancy limits was a component of last year’s Polis-backed major land use reform bill, which died on the last day of session after undergoing multiple transformations. Democrats plan to bring parts of that legislation back this session as individual bills, and HB-1007 is the first such component to be introduced.

Rutinel said that about two dozen Colorado municipalities have some sort of occupancy limit on the books. Cities including Fort Collins, Commerce City and Littleton have what’s commonly known as a “U plus 2” law, where no more than three unrelated people can live together.

That means even in a house with five or six bedrooms, just three unrelated people could live together.

Some Colorado cities, however, have recently updated their occupancy limit laws. In 2021, Denver City Council updated the city’s zoning code to allow five unrelated adults to live together. Boulder’s city council made a similar move last year. A citizen-led effort in Fort Collins to change the policy failed last year, but the city council is expected to consider other recommendations starting this summer.

“No one should face eviction for living with housemates in a perfectly safe environment simply based on the relationship of the people in the house. What the change in the Boulder law did was take existing situations that were previously illegal that you could be evicted for and make them legal in every way. That increase in housing stability is huge for people,” said Eric Budd, who helped lead the Boulder reform.

Will Toor, the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the bill could also help the state meet its climate and energy goals. Existing buildings could get more use and people would share high-emission utilities.

“So much of the energy use and emissions associated with buildings is essentially fixed, irrespective of the number of people. You use basically the same amount of energy for heating and cooling and refrigeration, but you’d be sharing it with more people,” he said.

The bill so far has the support of organizations including the Community Economic Defense Project, Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and New Era Colorado. No lobbyist has registered in opposition to it so far, but the city of Fort Collins has indicated it will try to amend the bill, and some groups representing local governments are monitoring its progress.