The Boulder City Council is planning to revise the city's occupancy limits as soon as August 17. Credit: John Herrick

The Boulder City Council on Thursday directed city planners to begin drafting an ordinance to lift the city’s legal limits on how many unrelated people can live together, its latest attempt to combat the city’s longstanding housing shortage. 

City officials will propose revisions to Boulder’s decades-old occupancy law to increase the number of unrelated people who can live together from three to as many as five in single-family neighborhoods. 

Councilmembers could vote to approve the changes as soon as August 2023, according to a city staff memo, after city officials gather feedback from the community. The goal is to “provide greater housing opportunities in the community while preserving neighborhood character in established neighborhoods.” 

The update is part of the Boulder City Council’s broader agenda to increase the city’s supply of housing and reduce costs. In addition to changes to occupancy laws, councilmembers plan to eliminate the city’s “saturation limits” on how many accessory dwelling units can be built in neighborhoods. They also are expected to approve a downpayment assistance program for middle-class home buyers. 

In the 1960s, cities across the country adopted varying sorts of occupancy limits, in part to address overcrowding and nuisance concerns in college neighborhoods. The city says its occupancy limits are a means to “to protect the health, safety and welfare of the Boulder community.” People living in windowless basements, for instance, might have trouble evacuating during a flood.  

But such laws can also restrict who can live where, exacerbating the housing shortage and potentially driving up home prices. Studies have shown that local housing restrictions have blocked people out, contributing to segregation by race and class across the U.S. In the 1990s, occupancy limits were often referred to as “living-in-sin” ordinances, and they had the effect of penalizing unmarried gay couples. (Family members, typically defined by marriage or blood, are often exempt from occupancy limits. Boulder exempts people in domestic partnerships, too.)

In recent years, similarly sized communities across the country have loosened or eliminated restrictions. According to a city staff memo, cities that do not have occupancy limits, but used to, include: Berkeley, California; Eugene, Oregon; San Luis Obispo, California; and Corvallis, Oregon. Minneapolis eliminated its occupancy laws in order to “prioritize equitable access to housing.” In February 2023, Madison, Wisconsin lifted its occupancy limits to five unrelated people. 

Under Boulder’s occupancy ordinance, code compliance officials can respond to complaints from neighbors by issuing warnings, ticketing the property owners, or taking away their rental licenses. Often, the end result is that the tenant has to vacate the property. 

In 2022, the city took enforcement action in response to seven out of 28 complaints, according to city data. That enforcement rate is lower than prior years. 

Several councilmembers said they would prefer to eliminate occupancy limits altogether. Councilmember Nicole Speer said removing the limits would “let us focus our resources on the things that will have major benefits on mitigating some of the impacts of [housing] density, like robust public transportation, lower maintenance landscaping, more affordable housing, and universities that have sufficient on-campus housing.” 

In the 2021 election, the Bedrooms Are For People ballot measure committee, which was composed of local housing advocates and political organizers, petitioned to lift occupancy limits to one person per bedroom, plus one. The ballot measure failed by a vote of 52% to 48%.

That same year, a majority of city councilmembers campaigned on platforms to revise the city’s occupancy limits if elected, at least to some degree. The new Boulder City Council that was sworn in two weeks later made it one of its priorities to have city staff study occupancy laws in other communities and, potentially, revise Boulder’s ordinance. 

The changes under consideration are different from those proposed by the Bedrooms Are For People campaign. The city council wants to lift occupancy limits across the city by one to two people. The ballot measure would have lifted the limits based on the number of bedrooms. 

Even so, opponents of lifting occupancy limits argue councilmembers are attempting to usurp the will of voters. A leading critic is Councilmember Mark Wallach, who told his colleagues that the reforms under consideration amounted to a “betrayal of the community that voted against Bedrooms.” 

In recent years, Boulder has made it easier to enforce occupancy laws. In 2015, the city passed an ordinance that allows enforcers to use rental advertising as evidence in determining whether a unit was over-occupied. The crackdown was part of a renewed focus on addressing nuisance concerns in the student neighborhoods of University Hill, Martin Acres and Goss-Grove. 

It’s unclear exactly how occupancy limits have affected the city’s supply and cost of housing, or the look and feel of its neighborhoods. 

The city’s most stringent limit of three unrelated people exists in certain low-density residential zones, applying to about 39% of all the city’s approximate 46,900 housing units, according to an analysis by Boulder Reporting Lab of city data. 

Housing units are a measure of homes, not bedrooms. Karl Guiler, a senior policy advisor for the city’s Planning and Development Services Department, told councilmembers on Thursday that the city doesn’t have accessible records on the number of bedrooms in the city. 

John Herrick is senior reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness. Email:

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  1. If council wants to increase density, they must exclude Martin Acres and University Hill, as they are already de facto student dorms and house the most students and have the most issues. Also — council must make HOA’s eligible so that no neighborhood can be exempt in city limits. That’s equitable.

  2. This occupancy issue should be on the ballot in the next city election. Voters have the right to decide on this, not a few people on council. This IS still a democracy, last time l checked.

  3. Increasing occupancy might make the rental of a particular house more affordable to the five living in it, for a short period of time. But watch the cost of the house go up. Investors are going to buy up houses knowing they can legally charge rent to five people, and the end result, is housing prices increase, and families that need a house, not an apartment, will not be able to compete. Another progressive giveaway to their developer masters.

  4. Please note that the third to last paragraph in this article states that it is “…unclear exactly how occupancy limits have affected the city’s supply and cost of housing, or the look and feel of its neighborhoods.’ One certainty is that families, who want to live in these beautiful homes, simply cannot compete with investors (many out of state), who combine and want to rent them. While this town has a new trash ordinance and a revised noise ordinance, these measures will be entirely flattened by occupancy increases and ADU saturation abolition. I am at a loss as to why the Hill, Martin Acres and Goss Grove (yes, student neighborhoods, but also family neighborhoods) can’t receive a simple exemption, given their proximity to CU. There are many unknowns, but our neighborhoods are struggling to survive.

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