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Safe Occupancy Program

Everyone deserves to live in, work in, and visit buildings that are safe.


Denver Community Planning and Development (CPD) and the Denver Fire Department (DFD) have launched a new, conditional building occupancy program for spaces that are currently operating without permits. This is an incentive-driven program designed to improve the safety of buildings in Denver for their occupants, visitors, neighbors, and general public.

Let's break that down

Enrolling in the Safe Occupancy Program means you could be eligible for a conditional certificate of occupancy, which legally allows people to continue occupying their space, provided there are no life-safety hazards. Occupancy is conditional based on progress under a compliance plan--the creation of which is one of the first steps in the program.

Each compliance plan is tailored to the unique tenant space or building in question. The plan will include a description of the unpermitted construction, steps for ensuring the construction complies with local codes, and a schedule for obtaining permits if necessary. This will mean having an architect or engineer on board. CPD and DFD will work collaboratively with applicants as they create their compliance plan in order to identify reasonable, potentially more affordable ways to meet building and fire codes. Once a plan is created and approved, work will progress according to the schedule outlined in the plan. During this time, the conditional certificate of occupancy will ensure you can continue to live in, work in, or rent out the space.

The conditional certificate of occupancy is a first nationally to help address affordability for existing buildings.

Denver's building, zoning, and fire codes are designed to prevent major problems down the road, from protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the people who use the building to being conscious of the structure's impact on its environment. These codes are not determined at random--the Denver Building and Fire Code uses international standards that apply to development around the world and the Denver Zoning Code is developed through public input to reflect the community's vision for the future of Denver. 

Issuing permits is one way the city of Denver ensures that what is built is in line with codes. When you submit plans for a project to the city, we review the plans and look for things like structural integrity, routes for occupants to exit in an emergency and first responders to enter, adequate bathrooms, ADA accessibility, proper ventilation, making sure the electrical system can support demand, ensuring that the building materials used won't accelerate a fire, and so on. 

Beyond just looking at plans, we also inspect construction in the field. City inspectors help protect you from unscrupulous contractors by making sure the work was done right, materials are installed according to their manufacturer's specifications, and that the work is up to code. Never pay in full for a job until after it is permitted, inspected, and approved. Without an approved permit, you may have little to no legal recourse or insurance protection if the work is substandard or later causes injury. With a permit, you will have a record of who is responsible for the work.

Denver strives to apply reasonable, rational requirements for existing buildings while ensuring the safety of all occupants and the general public. The recent adoption of the new International Existing Building Code (IEBC) makes it easier and more affordable to renovate, repair and alter existing buildings. 

With this program, Denver became the first city in the country with a law explicitly granting legal occupancy of unpermitted spaces while a building is being brought up to code voluntarily. Life safety hazards must be addressed up front.

While first and foremost ensuring public safety, the program offers three key benefits to users:

  • Allows people to remain in place
  • Offers an extended deadline for compliance
  • Encourages collaboration for creative and potentially cheaper solutions

Denver’s high-priced real estate has driven local artists and others to find affordable, functional space in older buildings. In some cases, as part of repurposing these buildings, work has been completed without permits and not up to the standards of international building and fire codes, putting occupants and the public at risk of fire and other hazards.

The Safe Occupancy Program was designed with creative spaces in mind but is applicable to many other uses of existing buildings. It allows building improvements to progress at a pace that makes sense for the property owner and the city, increasing the affordability of the project by distributing construction costs over a longer time. City code officials will work with building owners, tenants and contractors to identify reasonable and more affordable ways to meet the intent of building and fire codes.

The program has broad support from arts and affordable housing advocates including the RiNo Arts District, All In Denver and Meow Wolf, an arts collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which recently provided grant funding to support Denver DIY spaces.

Program details

Getting started

Ask questions anonymously

We think we've covered most of the important information on this webpage, but every building is unique. For more specific answers about if, and how, the Safe Occupancy Program applies to you, contact CPD Deputy Director Jill Jennings Golich at 720.865.2909 or jill.jenningsgolich@denvergov.org. You may have to leave a voicemail on the first call, but your name and address are not necessary at this point.


Eligibility

Through January 17, 2020, the owner or tenant of an existing unpermitted space may apply for the program. In addition, through January 19, 2018, any buildings vacated since December 2016 are also retroactively eligible, as are any buildings inspected in response to complaints/tips.

After January 19, 2018, the only way to enter the Safe Occupancy Program is to come forward voluntarily. Spaces inspected in response to complaints or tips will no longer be eligible after that date.

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An "unpermitted" space is one where construction was performed without building permits prior to July 21, 2017.

  • Businesses/Sales

Many existing businesses can take advantage of this program, such as beauty salons, car washes, dry cleaning, professional services (architects, lawyers, dentists, etc.), skill development (tutoring centers, martial arts, etc.), retail sales, and more. For a complete list of the businesses that qualify, consult Sections 304 "Business Group B" and 309 "Mercantile Group M" of the International Building Code (IBC).

  • Residential

Single-family homes and duplexes are eligible. Many other types of residential dwellings are also eligible, provided they are two stories or less, have fewer than 16 dwelling units, have an occupant load of 20 people or less, and are listed in Sections 310.4 or 310.5 "Residential Group R-2" and "Residential Group R-3" of the IBC.

  • Assembly

Assembly spaces must have a maximum occupancy load of 300 people. Eligible spaces include performance space (bands, poetry readings, dances etc.), art galleries, arcades, libraries and museums, indoor sports/gyms (without spectator seating), lecture halls, exhibition halls, community halls, and places of worship. A longer list of allowed assembly spaces, holding 300 people or less, is located in Section 303.4 "Assembly Group A-3" of the IBC.

Live/work spaces qualify if they meet the rest of these criteria outlined above.

Red "X" icon

  • Places that serve food and drink (like restaurants, bars, banquet halls, and theaters) 
  • Buildings that may pose a higher risk or have a higher occupancy load, like hospitals, schools, event centers, hotels, and manufacturing/processing activities
  • New buildings or new tenant spaces that you seek to open (see below for details)

To check on your space, first consult Chapter 3 of the IBC. The only eligible building types are those classified as Assembly Group A-3; Business Group B; Mercantile Group M; Residential Group R-2 and R-3 (subject to the conditions above); or Utility and Miscellaneous Group U. For further questions, contact CPD Deputy Director Jill Jennings Golich at 720.865.2909 or jill.jenningsgolich@denvergov.org.

New spaces

There are several aspects of this program that have long been available to those creating a new use in an existing space, including the ability to meet with the city on permitting/code requirements before seeking permits, progressing according to your timeline rather than a city requirement, the ability to pursue time-saving simultaneous zoning and building permits, and the ability to leverage the IEBC when setting up a new use in an existing building. Regardless of the incentives available under the Safe Occupancy Program, it is still more economical and safer to pursue permits before opening or building out a new space.


Infographic of the safe occupancy program timeline

How the program works

View this infographic (JPEG) to see an outline of how the program works - for example, when you need to have a compliance plan in place and when you can receive a conditional certificate of occupancy.

As a brief summary...

  • City code officials would first inspect the space to assess its safety, but would not require the owner to correct violations right away unless there is a serious life-safety concern.
  • The owner or tenant will work with city code officials to create a plan and set extended timelines for making sure their space is up to code. This would involve the applicant hiring an architect or other licensed professional.
  • During this process, an owner or tenant may apply for a conditional certificate of occupancy to continue to use the building. City officials will grant this allowance after verifying that no serious life safety hazards exist and a plan to bring the building up to code is in place.
  • While work is ongoing, inspections will be scheduled to assess progress.

Other things to know before you start

Zoning

Zoning permits are required if a change of use under the zoning code has occurred (e.g., changing from a warehouse or church to a commercial or residential use), or if construction work modifies the building’s exterior. A conditional certificate of occupancy cannot be issued until all required zoning permit applications have been submitted for review and are found to be complete by staff according to the zoning code for the City & County of Denver. 

Hiring a professional

Creating a compliance plan or verifying that installed work meets code will almost always require that you hire a professional -- an architect, engineer, or licensed contractor. Through this process, you and the city will work together to identify an appropriate path to meet code. Accordingly, your architect or engineer who is responsible for preparing your compliance plan and permit submittals will need to attend all meetings with you and the city.

Owner's authorization

Tenants enrolling in the Safe Occupancy Program will need to provide a letter from the building owner authorizing participation in the process by the time the compliance plan is submitted. 

Timeframes and extensions

After enrolling in the program, you will have 60 days to complete a compliance plan. Any work or permits required under the plan must be completed within a year of starting the program. If your project requires more time than that, notify the building official in writing 30 days in advance of your deadline for an extension, making sure to include a reason and a new anticipated completion date in your request.

Permit fees

Any work to be completed under a compliance plan will incur standard permit fees; however, any additional fees typically applied to unpermitted work will be waived.

Transferability

The compliance plan and conditional certificate of occupancy can be transferred to a new owner or tenant during the program.

What does my building need to meet code?

Every building and space is unique, and it would be virtually impossible for one checklist to apply unilaterally to every existing unpermitted space. However, while we can't design your space for you, we are committed to being a partner in finding innovative and more affordable solutions.

To start, read the building code policy (PDF) on submitting a compliance plan and receiving a conditional certificate of occupancy. Section B "Compliance Plan Submission" lists fairly standard information that you should expect to submit as part of your compliance plan.


 
Resources

Are you a creative space or a local artist?

Visit Denver Arts & Venues to learn more about the additional resources available to you.

Share your expertise with us

Denver Arts & Venues is looking for 10 skilled architects, engineers, or contractors to lend their expertise toward preserving the city’s creative spaces.

Click here to learn more.

Safe Occupancy Bill (17-0726)
at City Council

June 28, 10:30 a.m.
City Council Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness Committee
Included public comment time

July 10, 5:30 p.m.
City Council first reading
and courtesy public hearing

July 17, 5:30 p.m. APPROVED!
City Council second reading and vote

Read the bill on the Council website >>

Contact your council representative >>