On April 25, 2023, a Colorado legislative committee voted against a bill that would have allowed cities to set annual limits on rent increases, marking an end to this year’s debate over rent control — and a familiar defeat for Boulder.
The City of Boulder was among few local governments publicly supporting the bill. Boulder County’s entire delegation of state lawmakers backed it, too.
“We’re missing a huge opportunity here to allow local communities to do something about what is happening in our state with the rising cost of housing,” Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Boulder County and chair of the committee, said before her colleagues killed the bill. “I’m sure that the sponsor and other groups will just keep trying, year after year after year.”
The bill’s demise is the latest chapter in a fight dating back decades and beginning in the City of Boulder. The 2023 legislation sought to overturn a statewide prohibition on local rent control, passed into law in 1981. The ban was a direct response to an attempt by local organizers to pass a rent control ballot measure in the City of Boulder.
This year’s debate was similar to the one that occurred more than four decades ago. Renters wanted relief from rising rents. Businesses and property owners said Colorado needs to build more housing, not discourage development by capping returns on investments.
The history and ongoing dispute highlight the persistence of the housing shortage and the elusive quest for grand policy solutions.
“The early 1980s was really the primetime for tenant activism,” Mark Fearer, one of the organizers who sought to pass the rent control city ballot measure, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “That really was the heyday.”
‘A very big unintended consequence’
In the early 1980s, a group of renters formed the Boulder Tenants Union. It included young activists and former CU Boulder students, some of whom had organized a rent strike in the previous decade. Others were attending conferences on tenants’ rights, counseling renters, lobbying city council, and reading the likes of Saul Alinsky, a political activist who was considered the father of community organizing, according to members.
“We were inspired,” Kathy Partridge, who joined the group after graduating from CU Boulder in 1979, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
At the time, homes that were once “cheap and funky” were becoming unaffordable, Partridge said. Rents were rising and rentals were growing scarce. In relatively affordable neighborhoods like Goss-Grove, new, more expensive condominiums were going up in place of homes.
“There was a sense that low-income people were being forced out of Boulder,” Partridge said.
In 1981, organizers began circulating a petition for a rent control ballot measure. It would have placed a 120-day freeze on rent increases. If landlords wanted to increase rent beyond the cost of inflation after that period, they would need permission from an elected five-member panel, according to news reports. The tenant could raise objections to the increase, and even petition for a rent decrease. They had three months to collect 5,000 signatures.
“We feel that unless something is done about high rents very soon, Boulder is in danger of becoming an elite city,” Chris Goodwin, a member of the group backing the petition, told the Rocky Mountain News in February 1981. “We’re trying to preserve Boulder as a town where people of all economic levels can live.”
But the following month, Rep. James Chaplin, a real estate investor from Broomfield, presented a bill to a state House committee to preempt local governments from enacting rent controls.
Backing the bill was Ray Baker, president of the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, who told committee members the legislation was primarily a reaction to the Boulder ballot measure petition that was circulating. It was the only city he was aware of that was considering rent control, he said. But he argued if the measure passed, it would have a “rippling effect throughout the state.”
“Assuming such a vote is favorable [in Boulder], we feel a considerable amount of [out-of-state investment] capital … would be eliminated,” Baker said. “It is not a local issue.”
Several lawmakers suggested the City of Boulder had brought high housing costs upon itself by passing laws restricting construction, such as the residential housing growth cap, which was enacted in 1977. Rent control was the wrong solution for this problem, they argued. When the statewide bill banning rent control came before the full House, Rep. David Skaggs, an attorney from Boulder, referred to the petition effort as an example of “misguided economics.”
“It seems to be that this bill is intended to accomplish an understandable objective — which is to prevent Boulder, Colorado from becoming a victim of its own folly,” Skaggs said. Still, he opposed the statewide prohibition. “I think it is a bit paternal.”
Rep. Ruth Wright, an attorney from Boulder, also spoke out against the bill. She said she opposed rent control, but also opposed taking away local control. “I find that Boulder voters are pretty reasonable people,” she said, before being interrupted by hollering and laughter from her colleagues on the House floor.
“Boulder voters have every right under the constitution” to debate the issue, she continued.
In the end, the bill passed the House and Senate, both of which were controlled by Republicans, and was signed into law by Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat. Other states have since passed rent control bans too.
“It was a very big unintended consequence” of the petition, Fearer, of the now-defunct tenants’ union, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
Boulder’s rent increases exceed income gains
After the defeat, the organizers, some of whom still live in Boulder, changed their focus to more incremental policy changes. For instance, in 1982, they lobbied the city council to pass a model lease, which effectively set a standard for lease agreements with landlords and tenants. And in 1985, they spearheaded a ballot measure to require landlords to pay interest on security deposits. (City officials have since lowered that rate over the years.)
Despite the decades that have passed, repealing the state’s prohibition on rent control remains elusive. Lawmakers tried to pass a bill to do so in 2019, but it failed. That year and this one, Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office.
Much of the opposition this year came from the Colorado Apartment Association, the Colorado Association of Realtors, Colorado Association of Home Builders and business groups, including the Boulder Chamber. Some local governments, such as Colorado Springs, opposed the bill. They all argued such policies would discourage investments in new housing. Likewise, Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon, who cast the deciding committee vote that killed the bill this year, said such a policy would reduce the supply of much-needed housing.
But the precise effect rent control would have on a place like Boulder is unclear. Similar price ceiling policies in other states and cities vary in scope and impact.
In the meantime, Boulder, like other cities in Colorado, has not built its way out of the housing crisis. The number of new homes built every year in the City of Boulder has generally declined since the 1980s, according to county data. This is in part due to restrictions on housing developments and density, such as those that were enacted as part of the 1978 Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan.
In the last four decades, the median rent in the City of Boulder has increased nearly twice as much as the median household income, according to historical U.S. Census data compiled by researchers at the University of Minnesota.
In 1980, the median rent in the City of Boulder was about $889 for a house or apartment, when adjusting for inflation. In the subsequent four decades, that price has more than doubled. In April 2023, the median rent in Boulder was about $2,800, about 10% higher than the same month last year, according to Zillow, the real estate website.
Goodwin, who later worked as a union organizer for state employees and did housing maintenance for CU Boulder before retiring, said he has watched the cost of housing rise.
“It’s very frustrating because I’ve seen it happen gradually over the years,” he said. “Sometimes, I think there’s not a lot of hope on this issue because everything is so expensive — land is expensive.”
Fearer, who now writes a column about tenant issues in the Boulder Weekly, said despite the failure of rent control, Boulder’s renters still have some of the strongest rights in the state. Most recently, in November 2020, city voters passed the No Eviction Without Representation ballot measure, giving tenants rights to legal council and rental assistance. Last year, they moved local elections to even years, starting in 2026, which is expected to increase voter turnout among renters.
“That’s why I started my column. There’s so much forgotten history about the tenants’ movement. And tenants have so little knowledge of what their rights are in Boulder,” Fearer said. “It’s just a crying shame, all the work we did, and so few people know that they have the best rights in the state.”