If the last City of Boulder election was about housing, this year’s is squarely about homelessness.
Ahead of the Nov. 7 city election, local political organizers are seeking to rally voters around the issue of homeless encampments. Their effort could result in a new majority that would dedicate more resources to clearing out these encampments. Five city council seats, including the position of mayor, are up for election.
The campaign comes as homelessness is rising in Boulder, particularly among those who have been homeless for less than one year and are experiencing homelessness for the first time, according to a recent city survey. Candidates in Boulder have for the most part split into two opposing camps over how to respond to homeless encampments: one side calls for stricter enforcement of the camping ban, while the other favors maintaining or even relaxing enforcement and reallocating the money elsewhere.
One litmus test to gauge a candidate’s overall stance on the issue is whether they support the Safe Zones 4 Kids ballot measure. The initiative would require the city to prioritize the removal of propane tanks and tents near schools, multi-use paths and sidewalks. Several candidates who support the measure also generally support investing more money in the city’s encampment removal program and Boulder Police Department.
A newly formed political organization, Boulder Elevated, has endorsed the ballot measure. The organization is also raising money on behalf of a slate of candidates who support the group’s overall vision. Those candidates are Councilmember Bob Yates, who is running for city mayor, Terri Brncic, Tina Marquis, Jennifer Robins and Councilmember Tara Winer.
The Boulder Progressives, meanwhile, a political organization that recently announced it opposes the Safe Zones 4 Kids initiative, is backing a separate group of candidates. They are Mayor Aaron Brockett and Councilmember Nicole Speer — both of whom are running for mayor — as well as Taishya Adams and Ryan Schuchard. Four city council candidates — Silas Atkins, Jacques Decalo, Waylon Lewis and Aaron Gabriel Neyer — are not endorsed by either group.
In addition to this ballot measure, some organizers are seeking to drive voter turnout generally by drawing attention to homeless encampments and making a connection to rising reports of crime. Among them is Dan Caruso, co-founder of Zayo Group, a telecommunications company that went public and later sold in 2020 for $8.2 billion. He is also co-founder of Caruso Ventures, which invests in technology start-ups.
“Public safety is the number one concern,” Caruso told Boulder Reporting Lab. “If we want to do something about it as Boulder voters, it starts with electing officials that will make that their highest priority.”
“You cannot be for public safety and illegal encampments. Those don’t work together.”
In 2017, Caruso was the chair of Engage Boulder, an unofficial candidate committee that backed a slate of candidates who advocated for more housing development and density in Boulder. This year, he said he is not planning to contribute cash to campaigns “in any material way.” He plans to announce the candidates he’s endorsing in October, according to an email he sent to a list of subscribers. He said he would donate $250,000 to nonprofits supporting homeless people if “the upcoming election results in a Mayor and Council that, in my opinion, is committed to” issues of public safety and illegal encampments.
Earlier this month, Boulder Elevated registered as an unofficial candidate committee. The group’s platform on homelessness is broad, ranging from prioritizing drug and mental health treatment to making sure public spaces are “safe and clean.”
The City of Boulder currently spends more than $3 million on encampment removal, its largest budget for this program to date. Boulder Elevated hasn’t taken a public position on how it wants its candidates to change the city’s approach.
“We want to allow [candidates] to come up with their own solutions and to speak for themselves on what they would like to see happen,” Brooke Harrison, the chair of board for Boulder Elevated, told Boulder Reporting Lab.
Harrison, a molecular biologist who serves on the Boulder County Board of Health, has also volunteered with Safer Boulder, a group that has advocated for public safety and encampment removals. She has spoken at city council meetings to advocate for additional funding for encampment removals and the Boulder Police Department. When the homeless day center was being proposed, she told councilmembers it was “fiscally irresponsible.” She has said that adding more portable restrooms downtown is an example of “programs that have failed in the past.”
Rather than rallying around any ballot measure this election, the Boulder Progressives and other like-minded political organizers have maintained their focus on housing issues more generally.
In the 2021 election, the organization supported the Bedrooms Are For People ballot measure, which sought to raise the city’s occupancy limits, allowing more unrelated people to live together in a home. The measure failed.
Eric Budd, a board member for the Boulder Progressives and co-chair of the Bedrooms Are For People campaign, said the 2021 ballot measure campaign helped energize voters that year. Ultimately, voters elected three councilmembers who supported raising occupancy limits. And last month, the Boulder City Council passed an ordinance to tweak the city’s zoning code to increase the limits from three to five, with certain exceptions.
The current council also has made it easier to build accessory dwelling units. This week, it will vote on an ordinance to allow duplexes and triplexes on larger lots in single-family neighborhoods, where they are currently prohibited.
Budd sees the opposition as borrowing the Bedrooms strategy of building a coalition among different groups around a specific issue.
“Bedrooms is still influential today. But it’s a bit different. There is not the same uniting force” as there was in 2021, Budd said. “And that force is powerful. That drives a lot of enthusiasm. It drives a lot of labor and people wanting to work on campaigns.”
Budd said the 2023 election could determine whether the city council maintains its current policy direction on housing. Gov. Jared Polis may seek to enact statewide land-use policies again next year. The Boulder Progressives support such a land-use reform. Boulder Elevated opposes giving up local control over land-use decisions.
Meanwhile, in an effort to reframe the political discourse on encampments this year, organizers have formed the Solutions Not Safe Zones ballot measure committee. It was set up to campaign against the Safe Zones 4 Kids measure and drive a broader conversation around the issue of homelessness, its organizers said.
Katie Farnan, a co-lead for Solutions Not Safe Zones campaign, said she would prefer to be talking about longer-term solutions to homelessness, such as expanding the safety net and support services and focusing on providing subsidized housing.
Farnan said the city is currently enforcing its camping ban, which she views as just “moving people around.” If the city doubles down on enforcement in downtown Boulder, she believes that some people may set up camps in the forested foothills, potentially creating a fire risk.
She also noted that this year will be the first time Boulder will vote on a ballot measure centered on the issue of homelessness.
“The first time we are going to vote on it is to say [to people] just go away and we don’t care where,” Farnan said.
Clarification. This story was clarified to reflect Dan Caruso’s conditions for his pledge of $250,000 to support homeless services.