Elections Case Grows from Boulder’s Historic Housing Practices, Heads to Supreme Court

A group of Boulder citizens are going to the Colorado Supreme Court with a legal fight over housing restrictions and confusion about election petitions in an area of law that Dan Williams, a member of Hutchinson Black and Cook, says is not very consistent.

Bedrooms Are For People, an activist group seeking to change occupancy laws in Boulder, petitioned the Supreme Court to decide a ballot issue. The court will need to decide quickly. Ballot language in question in the case must be finalized by Friday.

On Aug. 19, Bedrooms Are For People asked the Supreme Court to take the case, and the next day it granted the request. 

Bedrooms Are For People is working to change laws regarding occupancy restrictions in Boulder. According to the group’s website, in most of Boulder it is illegal for more than three or four unrelated people to live together in a home, regardless of the size of the property and the age of the residents. 

Bedrooms Are For People says the current occupancy laws limit co-housing of seniors and retirees, affect affordability and economic hardship in Boulder, conflict with the occupancy standards recommended by the Fair Housing Act and “are oppressive and unjust” and don’t reflect the “progressive” community’s values. BAFP attempted to put a question about changing these the laws on the November ballot.

The group’s place on the ballot could end up being a victim of pandemic signature-collection problems. The Boulder city clerk published election guidelines in January, saying petitions must be submitted no later than May 7, Williams said.BAFP submitted the proposed language for the petition in March and was informed via letter that the city required 4,048 registered elector signatures. 

That same month, the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect, disrupting the signature-gathering activities of BAFP. By April, Boulder City Attorney Tom Carr told the City Council that BAFP’s signature requirement was 4,048 signatures and the deadline was set for Aug. 5.

Bedrooms Are For People began collecting signatures after the statewide orders were lifted in early May. There were four other petitions circulating at the same time, but Williams said BAFP was performing well.

Carr later said the deadline had passed in June, though he had previously said the signature collection deadline was in August. However, he told the Boulder City Council that, as a matter of discretion, the city should honor the August deadline in order to correct the problem surrounding the dates.

Williams submitted a letter to the council advising them that this option presented by Carr would avoid litigation. City Council, however, declined, and on July 21 voted 5-4 not to provide relief even if BAFP and other valid groups satisfied requirements set in January.

“We will honor what the clerk said because when the government tells you something, you should be able to trust that,” Williams added. “There would have been no lawsuit.”

However, Williams said a homeowner group in Boulder did not like the petition and lobbied the Boulder City Council and Carr to change the signature collection rules, which would make it impossible for Bedrooms Are For People to succeed.

After the lobbying pressure, the city essentially said that although Bedrooms Are For People had been given “bad” information, the deadline had still passed, Williams said. Further, the city also said that although BAFP were informed they needed 4,048 signatures on the petition, the actual amount required was 8,096 signatures. 

Bedrooms Are For People had been working toward the 4,000-signature target and submitted 7,700 signatures. The final clerk count of valid registered elector signatures was set at 5,300.

“They far surpassed that 4,048 target they were told they had to hit,” Williams said, “but the city said no — because we should have told you 8,000 signatures by June 21, it’s now too late.”

In both Denver and Boulder, there has been a recognition that single-family zoning and attempts to keep unrelated people from living together has been used to keep certain people out of communities — such as minorities and nontraditional nuclear families, Williams said. As a result, many people are looking for a fairer and less discriminatory system in Boulder, and BAFP believes it’s time to take steps toward change and reduce those levels of discrimination, he added.

The complaint filed with the Supreme Court discusses the difficulty of living in Boulder. “That’s by design,” Williams said. The group alleges that, tracing back at least as far as the 1920s, Boulder has implemented zoning rules specifically designed to keep “undesirables” from settling in Boulder, such as Hispanics and Blacks, and turn it into a wealthy community. “It’s time to stop this kind of discriminatory practice,” Williams said.

Colorado has had other election disputes with such situations as clerks providing bad or incorrect information — but how those cases have been handled have not been consistent, he said. He believed the court was willing to take the case in order to provide some clarity.

There are cases around the nation where election administrators provided wrong dates, Williams said. In Vermont, a calendar was printed with the wrong dates pertaining to the election printed on it and claim that there were issues with deadlines.

Other Supreme Courts around the country have held that such practices are unfair and a legal dispute about the deadline, Williams said. That sort of situation has not come up specifically in Colorado.

Williams filed the reply brief with the Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon.

“At this point, the council has taken up this issue a few times since July 21 and they’re not budging — so there’s not an opportunity to resolve the case,” Williams said.

   — Avery Martinez, [email protected]

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