By Lisa Nelson

There is a concept in Buddhist thought called foolish compassion. It occurs when, in an effort to alleviate suffering in the world, compassion is offered without the benefit of wisdom. The Bedrooms Are For People initiative is a prime example of insane compassion. The supporters of this initiative deserve our sympathy for their stories of hardship. Advocates claim that removing tenure limits is a response to our pressing economic, social and environmental problems. Who wouldn’t want to vote for a simple good idea that will help so many deserving people and solve the problems that plague us?

Unfortunately, Bedrooms’ simplistic approach is deeply flawed and lacks wisdom. It completely ignores both the reality of the highly profitable and ever-expanding rental housing industry in Boulder and the negative impacts that will result from unlimited occupancy. City and community leaders have asked Bedrooms organizers to consider adding provisions to address these concerns, and instead of incorporating some wisdom into their initiative, the organizers declined, preferring instead to send this reckless proposition to the voters.
I have spent the past decade working closely with a wide range of stakeholders on issues related to the impacts and regulation of the rental housing industry in Boulder. Based on my long experience in the trenches of community advocacy around these issues, there is no doubt in my mind that this initiative, as drafted, will cause substantial harm to our community, which is why i joined the “No On Bedroom $” committee (noon Bedrooms.org).

In their endorsement of Bedrooms, the editorial board of this journal ignored and jokingly downplayed the prospect of negative impacts from Bedrooms while laying out a series of supporting arguments that are completely at odds with those of between us who have worked on these problems for years know to be true.

Supporters of Bedrooms rely on the claim that the inevitable increase in impacts to parking, noise, waste and other nuisances resulting from this initiative will be mitigated by the city’s law enforcement processes. It is pure wishful thinking. The city does not prioritize or adequately fund the implementation of quality of life issues. Most of the relevant ordinances are unenforced, unenforceable, or so weak that they have no significant effect on the problem. That’s why the University Hill neighborhood, home to many properties currently housing six to twelve residents legally, recently received more than 18,000 police calls in two years with no noticeable improvement in conditions.

Stakeholders including the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, the CU Student Government and Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold have all urged the city to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of effective enforcement of the issues of noise and nuisance on the Hill, but nothing has changed even after the overwhelming and continued public health violations last year and the March 6 riot. The nuisance enforcement system in this city is broken, and the current state of efforts to remedy this is a request for the city to allocate resources to investigate the problem further. Good luck to anyone who lives near a rental property with chronic nuisance activity.

Occupancy is notoriously difficult to enforce, even before the free admission that will occur if the rooms pass. A staff memo to city council analyzing the impact on the city’s ability to enforce occupancy and health and safety functions if rooms were accepted concluded that significant additional resources will be required to carry out measures to be taken. Basic code enforcement such as appraising existing properties (the city does not currently track the number of bedrooms in housing), and inspecting and certifying properties for compliance with life safety codes. Staff are already overloaded in their ability to perform these functions due to heavy workload, downsizing and challenges inherent in determining the number of people residing in a property. This point was recently made by an elected municipal official who told me that if there are concerns about the number of occupants living on a property, “the city cannot protect you”.

Is Boulder having a housing crisis? Yes. Are bedrooms the solution? Absolutely not. Vote NO out of 300 and urge the new city council to invest the necessary resources and come up with solutions based on collaboration, compassion and hard-earned wisdom.

Lisa Nelson recently moved to South Boulder after more than 30 years living on the Hill as a long-term tenant. She sits on the Hill Revitalization Task Force and completed a term on the Hill University Commercial Zone Management Board in 2020.