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 is scheduled to vote this month on a proposed ordinance that would raise the city’s limits on how many unrelated people can live together. Depending on the outcome, it could usher in a policy change that has dominated much of the debate over how to address the city’s housing crisis in recent years. 

City of Boulder officials have recommended raising the city’s occupancy limits to five unrelated people across the city, with certain exceptions, according to a recent city staff memo. Most of Boulder’s residential properties are located in zoning districts where city code caps the number of unrelated people who can live together to no more than three. 

Following the 2021 election, councilmembers made it one of their priorities to raise occupancy limits. They sought to prevent displacement of renters living in over-occupied homes and, ideally, increase the city’s supply of rental units and reduce costs. 

In the 1960s, occupancy laws were passed in cities across the country with the stated purpose of controlling student populations in single-family neighborhoods. Boulder councilmembers last year passed ordinances to make it easier for police officers to enforce noise and nuisance laws in student neighborhoods like University Hill, as they anticipated raising occupancy limits and wanted to address community concerns. 

The proposed changes to Boulder’s occupancy laws come as lawmakers across the U.S. relax zoning rules that restrict the supply of housing and contribute to rising costs. California, Oregon and Washington state prohibit local governments from regulating occupancy based on family status. Similarly, in 2023, Colorado lawmakers attempted to outlaw occupancy limits like those in Boulder, but the bill failed on the final day of the legislative session amid pushback from local governments. 

City staff have written a draft ordinance. In the lead up to this month’s vote, planning officials have been gathering feedback from community members and the city’s Planning Board and Housing Advisory Board, which advise council on housing and development issues. 

The reaction from the city’s Planning Board last week was mixed. Some members opposed raising the limits to five unrelated people, in part because of its potential impact on neighborhoods. Others were concerned landlords may end up charging more for their rentals if more people are allowed to live there.

Planning Board Chair Sarah Silver said lifting occupancy limits would create an “open season” for landlords and investors to turn single-family homes into “return-on-investment cash cows.” Silver cited a March 2023 peer-reviewed study by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank, which found that land-use reforms across 1,136 cities increased the supply of housing but did not necessarily “expand the availability of housing that is affordable to low- and middle-income households,” at least in the short term. 

Proponents of lifting the city’s occupancy limits have argued that increasing the supply of housing would likely drive down costs. 

Moreover, a majority of the members on the Planning Board recommended that city officials consider changes to the city’s rental license program so that if landlords increase occupancy, they would have to cap rents. The goal is to ensure that new units that come onto the market as a result of increasing occupancy limits are more affordable. 

“I don’t know what that looks like. But I know that we can do it,” board member Laura Kaplan said. “And so if people are really concerned about the affordability aspect of this — and the idea that landlords or investors are going to snap up houses and then start charging exorbitant amounts by the bedroom — we can handle that problem through our rental licensing program.” 

It’s unclear whether the city would have the capacity to enforce such a policy. And some proponents of raising occupancy limits worry complicating the ordinance revisions could delay a vote on the proposed ordinance. On Nov. 7, five city council seats are up for election. 

Minutiae of revisions

Another open question is how the proposed occupancy limits would apply to “nonconforming” housing units in student neighborhoods. Nonconforming properties are allowed to have multiple dwelling units despite being located in areas where only one dwelling unit is allowed. Some properties on University Hill, for example, were allowed to rent out multiple units under prior zoning rules. When the city rezoned areas of the neighborhood to prohibit multifamily housing, those properties were allowed to remain under less-strict zoning rules. There are about 1,200 nonconforming properties across the city, according to city officials. 

The minutiae of these revisions is frustrating for some community members who have long advocated for repealing the city’s occupancy limits altogether. Many have argued that limiting occupancy based on family status is discrimination.

“It is a moral issue. The question is what is the role of government. And I think that is primarily the health and safety of its residents,” Mark McIntyre, a member of the city’s Planning Board, said during last week’s meeting. “I find there is little to no efficacy in treating our failures in code enforcement — and parking reform — by trying to govern or criminalize people based on familial relationships. It truly doesn’t make sense.” 

The Boulder City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the ordinance on Aug. 17.

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. Rent control rent control rent comtrol. And don’t let developers buy their way out of designated low income units.

  2. Interesting comments from some of the Planning Board members. Seems obvious that if more people live in a property that the landlord will increase the cost of rent. Trying to cap that increase seems to be a form of “rental control,” generally a taboo subject in these discussions.
    I am not sure why there was no mention in the article of the 2021 Bedrooms are for People proposal that was defeated. The 5 unrelated people go further than the BAFP proposal. The council reversing a defeated ballot initiative is a bad precedence in my opinion especially with such a poorly thought out ordinance.

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