Why did Bedrooms fail and what can we learn from it?

The final results of the 2021 Boulder elections carried some interesting news related to housing. Ballot Question 300: Bedrooms are for People, which sought to increase occupancy limits, failed to pass, with 47.7 percent voting in favor and 52.3 percent against. But the Bedrooms question drew more voter participation than any other ballot initiative in the election, with 33,052 people casting a vote (the next highest question by vote total was Ballot Measure 2I: Extension of Community, Culture, Resilience and Safety Sales and Use Tax, which received 727 fewer votes). The close loss and high turnout tell us that the occupancy issue is important to Boulder voters. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the anti-Bedrooms threads on Nextdoor were particularly loud just before the elections, with dozens of people chiming in to express their concerns and fears. It is hard to say how representative such comments are of the entire anti-Bedrooms initiative, but we can learn something from the pushback.

One thread on Nextdoor that generated 214 comments was titled, “Bedrooms are for Google” and another thread with 276 comments argued that the Bedrooms initiative “is not about housing working people it is about DOLLARS FOR DEVELOPERS!!!” Subsequent comments echoed this deep-seated fear that, presumably,  as soon as occupancy limits were loosened big investment companies would swoop up the remaining single-family homes in town and subdivide them into dense rental units. The roof on a 4-bedroom ranch home would be popped, four new rooms added, and Voilà: a 16-person rental unit would be in your backyard, clogging up your neighborhood street parking. The occupancy limit was the only thing preventing Boulder’s quiet, family-oriented neighborhoods from turning into a series of de facto fraternity and sorority houses. This inevitable process would further drive up home prices by reducing the single family housing stock. There would be no place for young families to live in Boulder. 

Of course, there are a lot of problems with such logic. Young families are already priced out of the city, investors are already making inroads into Boulder’s housing market, and the people in need of smaller rental units are not just raucous CU students, but essential workers in our community. 

Some of the Nextdoor comments echo the same reasoning that buttressed racist zoning practices in the past. Single-family zoning practices were promoted as a thinly veiled attempt to keep neighborhoods white by keeping them wealthy. The intertwining of race and class runs so deep that in the 1930s it was actually Constitutional to make zoning laws that clearly excluded Black Americans from a neighborhood without ever making reference to skin color (see Richard Rothstein Color of Law, pp. 52-53). Claims that we should “keep Boulder affordable for young families” through the enforcement of single-family zoning really means that we should keep Boulder open for wealthy young families, but not for those with lesser means. Perhaps there is not a racist motivation behind the rejection of Bedrooms, but there is a deep and clear classist motivation.

Coming on the heels of the election, the failure of the Bedrooms initiative was much discussed at the recent Boulder Housing Equity Forum. In his presentation on race, class and housing in Boulder, Clay Fong, community relations manager for the City, paraphrased an idea of Black historian Ibrahim X. Kendi: that one of the driver’s of racist behavior is self-interest. 

In the anti-Bedrooms sentiment on Nextdoor, self interest is clearly playing a role. Self interest also drives other forms of opposition to more inclusive and affordable housing. Still, we can take hope in the fact that many of the arguments made on Nextdoor against the Bedrooms were centered around a concern for housing affordability issues. The perceived threat of “big outside investors buying up the housing stock” relies on fears about housing affordability. So there is common ground between the opponents and supporters of Bedrooms.

Another explanation for the narrow Bedrooms miss has to do with who votes. In off-year election cycles, the voting public tends to be older, more conservative and more likely to own their home. In a brilliant article that we shared with you earlier this year, journalist Jerusalem Demsas argues that home ownership can turn people against progressive ideas. Owning a home, Demsas writes, “often turns its beneficiaries against progress and change, manifesting as anything from opposing homeless shelters in your neighborhood to blocking transit projects in your region.” Or, as in Boulder, opposing the reform of occupancy limits. A recent New York Times Opinion video, Blue States, You’re The Problem, drives home the point: progressive ideas are not gaining footholds in Democratic states. Boulder is one of the most progressive cities in the country, yet we still can’t pass a simple change to discriminatory occupancy laws. 

While six of the nine current City Council members endorsed the Bedrooms initiative, political action on the issue is moving cautiously. Occupancy limits were discussed at the first meeting of the new Council on Nov. 16, with many residents turning out for public comment to request a temporary moratorium on enforcement of the law. At the next City Council meeting on Nov. 30 two Council members, Junie Joseph and Nicole Speer, again pushed other members to reach a decision on the eviction moratorium, but other Council members wanted to table that decision until Council’s January retreat, when Council will determine whether and how occupancy can be placed on the work plan for 2022. An enforcement moratorium would allow people currently living over-occupied to participate in the public process without risking their housing. While there were only 5 occupancy-related evictions in 2021, this number almost certainly underestimates the law’s true impact. The standing threat of the occupancy law can be used by neighbors and landlords to encourage renters to move out of a home.

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