Tayer: Bedrooms are for people: Where the Boulder Chamber lies

When is a bedroom not a bedroom? . . . When it’s in Boulder. 

Across Boulder, there are bedrooms sitting idle that, otherwise, could accommodate individuals and couples or even just friends, who need a place to call home. The reason these bedrooms aren’t serving that purpose are the current occupancy limits that prohibit more than three or four, depending on specific area zoning, unrelated individuals from living together in the same house. 

Sure, many homeowners or renters are content to use their extra bedrooms as offices, as exercise space, or for guests. For others, though, that empty bedroom represents the chance to share their rent or mortgage costs with an additional housemate. It also can mean the opportunity to share their home with a non-traditional family member. Even more broadly, that empty room is one less chance to affordably house someone in Boulder at a time when we speak in terms of housing access as a “crisis.” 

Coming to the rescue in the effort to overcome this restraint on housing occupancy is the so called “Bedrooms are for People” initiative. In short, Bedrooms are for People will align the occupancy limit for a Boulder home with the number of bedrooms, plus one additional resident. Thus, a four bedroom house could have up to five unrelated occupants, a five bedroom house could have up to six unrelated occupants, and so on. 

It’s a simple and positive fix, right? . . . Well, yes and no.

I had a conversation the other day with a friend and local business colleague who is an advocate for more housing across Boulder, even in his own neighborhood, but opposes Bedrooms are for People. He recounts a list of concerning potential consequences of the initiative, including the risk that unscrupulous landlords will chop some of the larger houses in neighborhoods like University Hill into a warren of rooms, essentially creating shadow dorms.

The potential impact of such a bastardization of the Bedrooms are for People initiative’s goals is something no one wants to see, proponents and critics alike. One potential risk is an enormous escalation in the cost of housing, as the added revenue potential from additional room rents gets factored into sales prices, making home ownership even less accessible to our workforce. This could have a particularly disruptive impact on certain neighborhoods in close proximity to the university, where rental properties for students are centered and single-family home conversions will be most attractive.

Interestingly, these are the very same concerns opponents of the Bedrooms are for People initiative raised last year, when it potentially landed on the 2020 election ballot. In that case, the initiative was posed as a city charter provision, something that wouldn’t have been amendable, except by citizen vote. That means it would not be possible to address any of the negative concerns noted above except through an election — a very cumbersome process. 

Hoping to avoid a battle over the Bedrooms are for People initiative this year, the City Council was encouraged to begin a process of reviewing its occupancy limits as part of its 2021 work plan. An issue this complex, many felt, is best addressed through much more engaged citizen input, staff analysis, and thoughtful policy review. The City Council declined to take that step and here we are, facing a public vote on the Bedrooms are for People initiative this November.

Fortunately, there is a difference. This year, the ballot initiative before us is a referred ordinance. That means the City Council will have the power to amend the ordinance language, immediately after passage or down the road, as long as it maintains the original intent of the ballot initiative. The Bedrooms are for People proponents have made clear that they are sensitive to the potential concerns some have raised about their initiative and are prepared to partner in addressing them.

So where does the Boulder Chamber lie? Boulder needs expanded housing options for its workforce and families. That effort is critical to maintaining an inclusive, welcoming and economically vibrant community. The Bedrooms are for People initiative offers a step in the right direction toward greater housing accessibility and that is why it has our support. That said, we recognize the concerns regarding potential risks this initiative poses. If it passes, we expect the City Council and staff, working with opponents, proponents and other stakeholders, to put the proper guardrails in place. In that way, we will make it possible for all bedrooms to be bedrooms in Boulder.

John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at 303-442-1044, ext 110 or john.tayer@boulderchamber.com.