Two’s company

Tenants in a Boulder housing complex ask the city if requiring multiple renters to be married is discriminatory

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Courtesy of City of Boulder

Outside a small housing development west of Pearl Street is a sign. The sign welcomes visitors and residents to Knollwood Village and outlines a few rules. The Knollwood Village homeowners association erected it several years ago. It’s just a regular old sign, like any other sign at the entrance of a development, but it now serves as a decent symbol for the battle being waged between homeowners in the village.

It’s a battle that, when the City of Boulder’s Office of Human Rights rules on it in the coming weeks, could determine the rights of renters throughout the city.

So what’s the deal with the sign? The fact that it exists violates a clause in the development’s 40-year charter prohibiting signage, some residents say. Others say that the clause only pertains to the erection of signs on individual units. It’s a matter of interpretation is the point. But because the five-person board of the homeowners association in Knollwood Village thinks it should stand, the sign stands.

But that small argument over the sign is peanuts, merely a thumbnail, compared to what some homeowners in the development say are the newly enforced discriminatory regulations regarding what type of people are allowed to rent units in the facility. After hearing a complaint from a new homeowner in the area, and consulting a lawyer, the development’s homeowners association decided to only allow rentals to two or more people if they can prove they are a family. It could violate human rights laws both in the City of Boulder and the State of Colorado.

Knollwood Village has only 20 units — three four-plexes and four duplexes. Many of the owners of the units in the development have lived there for 10 or more years, including Ron Levin, who now rents his space out to three single tenants. When a new owner recently bought and moved into a unit in the development (Zillow estimates homes in the development at about $1.2 million), Levin says the newcomer may not have been too fond of his unmarried (and noisy) neighbors and went to the homeowners association to see if anything could be done. Upon looking at Knollwood Village’s charter, the association found an original clause claiming that units could only be rented to single families.

That clause was effectively dormant up until this year because nearly everyone in the village had been renting out units for decades.

“Well I don’t know this for sure, but I don’t think it’s ever been enforced,” says Alan Press, Knollwood Village homeowners association chair, who used to rent out his unit up until the late ’90s, when he moved in full-time. “But there’s also something in our declaration that says, and I’m paraphrasing, just because a restriction or something in the declaration hasn’t been enforced doesn’t mean that it can’t subsequently be enforced in the future.”

Press declined to speak specifically about the impetus for the kerfuffle, but says that when “some” owners asked the board to enforce the clause recently, the association took “a somewhat informal survey” of the 20 unit owners and found that the majority of the owners wanted to start enforcing the regulation.

While Press says the majority of owners want the clause enforced, Levin says the board has taken only their own considerations into account and that the true will of the housing complex is to amend the clause.

“Three people on the board are trying to push their issue,” Levin says. “A hundred percent it’s [only] the board members.”

Whatever the real split of opinion in the complex, the board went ahead and hired a lawyer through the management company (using money collected from homeowners via fees) to determine what constitutes a single family. What came back was the determination that a single family is any two or more people that can establish a “financial interdependence” and are related by blood, guardianship, marriage or adoption.

Herein lies the issue. The City of Boulder prohibits any rental agency from prohibiting housing based on marital status. Does the enforcement of this claim count as discriminating against single people?

“It’s discrimination 100 percent,” Levin says. “In order for us to rent, I’m not going to ask anyone any discriminatory questions, like their marital status or their financial arrangement with their partner. This board is putting us in a bad position.”

Press says he believes the enforcement of the clause is not discriminatory because the association allows rentals to one single person, just not two unrelated ones.

Carmen Atilano, community relations manager at Boulder’s Office of Human Rights, says her office investigates potential discriminatory acts when claims are submitted. Though Atilano is unable to say if a particular case is under investigation, Press says there was a claim submitted last week and that the Knollwood board is expecting to hear a decision within two weeks.

Atilano says the Boulder Human Rights Ordinance protects certain groups of people from discrimination in such things like housing.

“There are a number of protected classes, and a protected class can’t be a reason why you wouldn’t rent to somebody,” Atilano says. “So marital status is a protected class. Marital status could fall within the area of being single or being married. Our local law reads that discrimination is unlawful when a landlord, in this particular case, carries or makes a decision not to rent or sell a property to someone because of their protected class.”

Atilano says other protected classes include gender, race, religion, disability and more. In order to override these protected classes, Atilano says, a housing group would have to prove there is a “bona fide” reason for excluding that group of people. For instance, a religious group may be able to prohibit certain protected classes from renting, or a women’s-only housing structure could prohibit men from living there.

In the case of Knollwood Village, again Atilano couldn’t speak directly about the case but she did elaborate on a similar hypothetical situation.

“If in a housing ad they say that they don’t want two unrelated people, that’s an interesting one because then we would have to focus on what was the intent of that ad,” Atilano says. “Was the intent of the ad to only rent to married couples, for instance. First of all, we’d see if there was a bona fide reason, but second of all we’d have to look at if there was an established pattern of discrimination. If there’s no bona fide reason, we would look at the pattern of who they’ve rented to in the past five years, per se. If we see the only people they’ve rented to are married couples and there’s no bona fide reason for it, that looks like it could be a violation of the ordinance.”

If Atilano’s office determines that Knollwood Village is in violation of the city’s human rights laws, it will send a cease and desist letter to the association, and try to right anyone who’s been wronged — Atilano says this could include a reinstatement of housing for anyone who was kicked out because of the discriminatory rule.

Levin says several people have already moved out or will move out because of the board’s decision to enforce the rule. Others, Levin says, feel like they’re being unfairly targeted by what should be a group that is meant to simply help facilitate basic maintenance needs. As for his three tenants, Levin says he’ll have to ask them to leave if the clause is allowed to stand and that is emblematic of a bigger issue in the city.

“For me to have to kick these guys out, that’s the whole problem with Boulder. That’s why people move to Longmont,” Levin says. “Then in turn someone comes in and pays a high price for the place and more people get displaced to Louisville and Longmont. Thus the problem in Boulder: the elitism.”

Press says he’s glad the city will take a look at the situation in Knollwood Village but reiterated that he doesn’t think the enforcement of the clause is discriminatory.

“This is, from my point of a view, a good thing, because it’s now being investigated [by the] City of Boulder and they will make a determination.”

Press adds that though the city and state both require that housing decisions cannot be based on marital status, the federal government does not have such regulations.

Atilano says oftentimes housing decisions are made by people who don’t fully understand the city’s rules regarding discrimination and anyone who is even questioning whether they are being discriminated against (or if their rules are discriminatory) should contact the city.

“There is a lot of grey area,” Atilano says. “That’s why it’s best if somebody is really questioning a covenant or an ad, that they talk to us because there could be reasons why it’s that way or it could be a time for education to the housing development. That’s what we find a lot of in Boulder. Not that landlords or housing entities are outright wanting to discriminate, sometimes it just takes some education on our laws.”

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