Unrepentant Tenant

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The Unrepentant Tenant last outlined tenant activism in Boulder through the 1970s, with the Boulder County Tenant’s Organization (BCTO) based on the CU campus and getting county funding and office space and support from the CU student government. Sadly, strings attached from those funding sources dampened BCTO’s activism, and by the end of the 1970s, BCTO was mostly restricted to counseling tenants and landlords for problems like eviction, lack of repairs and losing their deposits. While that was helpful, it wasn’t enough.

In 1980, Kathy Partridge, Jay Jurie and Chris Goodwin started the Renters Rights Project (RRP) because of the lack of protections for the half of Boulder’s population who rented. I joined shortly after, and since there hadn’t been any tenant activism in years, RRP started making demands of the Boulder City Council—and headlines. 

A new, improved lease

A long-standing issue for tenants were (and still is) leases—which are legal contracts—that favored landlords and often contained unenforceable clauses, written in legalese. Although contracts are supposed to be negotiated, given the inherently unequal power between tenants and landlords, that is rarely the case. When was the last time you even tried to negotiate terms in your lease, let alone get agreement from the landlord?

So, one of RRP’s first issues was to advocate for a fair standardized lease that would spell out rights and responsibilities of both parties in plain English that all landlords would have to use.

Knowing City Council would not likely pass such an ordinance, RRP started a legal petition to put the issue on the ballot—a tool that would be used several times in the future, with mixed success. 

Predictably, Council recoiled at the notion of a mandatory fair lease, and the compromise was to form a committee of landlords, tenants and impartial parties to draft a model lease that would be voluntary. The committee met for almost two years (Chris Goodwin and I were on it) and finally created The Boulder Model Lease (bouldercolorado.gov/media/735/download?inline) in 1982. Although landlords helped negotiate the Boulder Model Lease, none used its original form, and it’s likely that few landlords use it now. If you are a tenant, you should be asking your landlord to use it, and if they don’t, ask why not.

The elephant in the rented room

Several months after advocating for better leases, RRP broached The Big Issue: rent control. I summarized that history in my first column (The Unrepentant Tenant, “Boiling Frogs,” March 10, 2022). Outcome: Although quite popular (then and now), rent control was banned throughout Colorado since 1981. Despite the state legislature squashing local efforts to deal with the rental crisis, RRP remained undaunted and went back to work on other issues.

Banning discrimination against families with children

A number of landlords were refusing to rent to families with children, and in 1980, the city’s Human Relations Commission (HRC)—with the urging of the RRP and other groups—recommended that City Council ban that form of discrimination. Naturally, landlords pushed back, and Council didn’t want to deal with it, so it punted the issue back to the HRC, and then back to City Council, throughout 1981.

RRP/BTU would continue to work with the HRC for the next few years in promoting better tenant protections. The HRC saw landlord-tenant issues as human rights issues, and were generally receptive to such protections—although the majority of City Council was not.

Merger of common interests 

Up to 1982, BCTO continued to focus on providing information to tenants and landlords about existing laws, although as non-attorneys the members were not allowed to give legal advice. The Renters Rights Project worked with BCTO, and proposed merging the two groups, combining counseling with advocacy. Both groups agreed, and the new unified group resurrected the name Boulder Tenants Union, harkening back to the activism of the early 1970s. Landlords were less than happy with the name and direction of the new group, and formed their own group to counter BTU’s drive for better protection. Later, BTU moved off campus but continued its counseling and advocacy roles.

New era of advocacy

The renewed BTU proposed a variety of tenant protections, while still counseling tenants and landlords. Although they had shelved the proposal from the previous year after lobbying from landlords, City Council finally passed a ban on adult-only housing in 1982, with some exemptions (i.e., senior housing, owner-occupied). It was BTU’s first legislative victory.

That same year, the Boulder Model Lease was approved by City Council, although only for voluntary use. 

Over the next two years, BTU proposed a series of other protections, including a warranty of habitability, a just-cause eviction protection, creation of a housing commission, interest on deposits, and privacy protection. At the time, none of those protections existed and only a few exist now. In my next column, I’ll go into more detail on those proposals.

In 1983, BTU was successful in getting City Council to pass an ordinance requiring leases to be in writing (if over 30 days), and tenants to get a copy of the lease. 

At every turn, landlords fought the simplest of proposals, invariably claiming the smallest change (i.e., requiring a written copy of the lease, or interest on deposits) would cause large costs, and administrative burdens, resulting in increased rents. They failed to mention that rents steadily rose well above inflation in the absence of any of the proposed regulations. 

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This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of  Boulder Weekly.

Email comments and questions to editorial@boulderweekly.com.

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