End the Ban on co-op Housing

In 1985, a lonely widow by the name of Blanche Devereaux posted an ad on the bulletin board of her local grocery store.  She was looking for roommates.  Her husband had passed away, and her five children had long since moved away.  So Blanche made room in her home for another widow (Rose), a divorcée (Dorothy), and soon also Dorothy’s mother (Sophia).  I’m speaking of course of the hit TV series The Golden Girls, which ran for seven seasons between 1985 and 1992.  Many people remember it as a show about seniors “enjoying their golden years.”  But the characters were in fact middle-aged.  They were empty nesters, mostly in their fifties.  At the start of the series, Blanche Devereaux would have been just 47.  

Here's the problem: The Golden Girls was filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles, but it purported to take place in Miami. Four unrelated women sharing a home in Miami would have been illegal under the local occupancy ordinance, even at the time.  And yes, The Golden Girls' living arrangement would be illegal in Fort Collins today.

The Value of Co-op Living:

Fort Collins limits residential occupancy––regardless of the size of the home or the number of bedrooms––to three unrelated adults. There is no limit on the number of related adults who share a home. This is an effective ban on co-op housing. City council members have defended this policy many times over the years, in part by arguing that they have limited occupancy in the name of affordability. But this is simple: It makes no sense to ban co-op living in the name of affordability.  

It defies evidence: rents and home values have soared since the city began enforcing the occupancy limit in 2005, and it also misses the point: living together is an opportunity to share costs, to share household chores, and to share facilities like kitchens and bathrooms.  It’s builds community. Roughly 28% of Larimer County residents live alone, a situation that is especially common among our seniors.  As our population ages, increasingly it’s not "U+2" anymore in Fort Collins.  It’s just "U".

Many people value the independence of living alone, but for those who value a greater sense of community, co-op should be legal and encouraged–––not prohibited. Living arrangements like Golden Girls is become increasingly common. But it can only happen in Fort Collins if we change the law.

Occupancy Limits are Changing Nationally:

Increasingly, progressive cities across Colorado are doing just that. In 2021, Denver raised their occupancy limit to five unrelated adults. Boulder’s city council recently passed a similar ordinance. Other states are doing the same thing, in May, the city of Nashville passed a new occupancy limit based on the number of bedrooms in a home (also up to a maximum of five adults).  Austin has moved towards abolishing occupancy limits altogether.

I had a chance to listen to parts of Boulder’s city council meeting on the occupancy ordinance.  People spoke movingly about what co-op living had meant to them:  the lifelong friendships they had made; how much they valued the meals they shared; and how meaningful co-op living (and chosen families) were to LGBT residents in particular.  

Co-op living is not for everyone.  But it should be legal in this city.

The Problem with “Complaint-Based” Enforcement:

Some on council have frequently defended the city’s occupancy limit by noting that enforcement is complaint-based. What this means in reality is that noise, parking and upkeep complaints are grounds for eviction: Maybe you parked your car in front of a neighbor’s house. Maybe you played your music a little loud last night. Noise and parking and upkeep are legitimate concerns and may be regulated by the city, but the solution to any and all of these complaints should not be expulsion from your home.

The ordinance doesn’t just affect students.  As city data show, residents of every age and background can find themselves in violation—-and increasingly they are.  For the first time in 2018, according to local data, students made up less than half of occupancy violations in the city of Fort Collins. Enforcement of occupancy limits is intrusive. It’s draconian, and it’s likely against federal law. Neighbors are encouraged to write down license plate numbers, and code enforcement officers stake out homes to keep track of who is coming and going.  

Finding Real Solutions:

There are legitimate concerns about parking, about noise, about yard maintenance, but we should regulate parking, noise, and yard maintenance––not people. We have a lot of experience as a city regulating parking. I myself am an enthusiastic proponent of the residential parking permit program, but it makes no sense to vigorously enforce occupancy limits (and place neighborhoods under government surveillance) unless you actually view occupancy––and not parking and noise and yard maintenance––as the problem. Limiting occupancy worsens our housing shortage––as residents are forced to spread out across more homes. It’s bad for the climate––as residents are prohibited from sharing resources, and it’s even bad for neighborhood character––as we’re unable to make the most out of our existing house stock. It’s also increasingly the exception both nationally and across northern Colorado. Following cities like Denver, Boulder, and Nashville, Fort Collins should end its ban on co-op housing.

Peter Erickson, YIMBY Fort Collins Lead