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Denver approves safe occupancy program for buildings

Path to compliance for existing spaces would ensure safety, avoid displacement

Denver Community Planning and Development (CPD) and the Denver Fire Department (DFD) will launch a new, conditional building occupancy program for unpermitted spaces that will ensure life safety, limit displacement, and allow extended deadlines and collaborative solutions to achieve code compliance.

Monday night, City Council voted unanimously to approve the Safe Occupancy Program, designed to incentivize the owners and tenants of unpermitted spaces to come forward and work with the city to make their buildings safe — thereby increasing safety for occupants, visitors, neighbors and the public.

With it, Denver becomes 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.

How the safe occupancy program works:

  • For 30 months from the bill’s effective date, the owner or tenant of an existing unpermitted space may come forward to apply for the program. Any buildings vacated since December 2016 are also eligible, as are any buildings inspected in response to complaints/tips for the next six months.
  • City code officials would 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.

The bill has 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, NM which recently provided grant funding to support Denver DIY spaces.

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