Boulder isn’t shy about promoting transparency as essential to the way the city does business.
It’s right there on its “City Culture” webpage: “We are stewards of the public’s trust and are committed to service that is transparent and consistent with city regulations and policies.”
And again on Boulder’s Community Engagement page: “Develop and implement techniques that increase transparency into decision-making and democratic processes.”
But Emily Reynolds, a 45-year Boulder resident, says she’s seeing little in the way of transparency in how the city is handling the purchase of a group home with taxpayer money that will serve as temporary shelter for people struggling with drug addiction.
The city refuses to disclose where the group home will be, citing patient privacy. That doesn’t sit well with Reynolds, who lives in Boulder’s Whittier neighborhood.
“I think people have a right to that information — it’s absurd that people aren’t informed about this,” she said. “I’m concerned about how secret the city is about these things.”
Kurt Firnhaber, Boulder’s director of housing and human services, is unapologetic about holding the address of the group home close to the vest. It’s unfair, he said, to put clients using the home “through hoops you wouldn’t put anyone else through” by disclosing its location and potentially violating medical privacy protections.
“Frankly, I’m more concerned about the people we’re serving than the general community,” he said.
Under the federal Fair Housing Act, cities are prohibited from denying housing to people based on a handicap, which includes a mental or physical impairment like alcoholism or drug addiction. In Boulder, group homes are legal in residentially zoned areas of the city.
As part of the Project Recovery initiative, which is being rolled out in concert with Boulder County, the city will be spending more than $1 million on a property in a residential neighborhood to house up to 10 people, who will typically spend six to nine months at the home while undergoing treatment for substance use disorder.
The money for the purchase of the home comes from Boulder’s affordable housing fund. The city expects to close on the property early next month.
Additional money from a Boulder County grant to Tribe Recovery Homes, a non-profit that specializes in helping individuals recover from substance problems, will cover the cost of day-to-day operations at the house. Tribe, which will have staff living at the group home, didn’t respond to multiple requests from The Denver Post for comment.
Two more houses of the same type are planned for other locations in Boulder County.
“It’s fair to say we understand the concerns of neighbors about this type of use in their neighborhood or community,” Firnhaber said. “We also feel strongly about being in alignment with the Fair Housing Act.”
But there is nothing in the housing law that prohibits the city from disclosing the location of a group home, according to Boulder’s city attorney.
“Personally, I would like to know if the city is planning to put a group home in my neighborhood,” said Steve Pomerance, a former Boulder councilman who is calling for more disclosure from the city. “In the name of transparency and good public process, they need to resolve the issue around this, including the issue of notification.”
Notification is standard when it comes to disclosing where sex offenders establish residency after being released from prison. And new development proposals are often disclosed to neighbors living within a certain distance of the site.
“You should err on the side of notification,” Pomerance said. “You gotta have that discussion.”
Nearly 2,000 Coloradans died of drugs in 2021 as fentanyl and methamphetamine continue to push the state’s per-capita overdose rate to the highest level ever recorded. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths in the state has nearly doubled in four years, from 16.5 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2018 to 31.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2021, according to state public health data.
Boulder has not escaped the scourge, as its public parks and creek trails continue to play host to drug users. In December, the main branch of the Boulder Public Library was closed for nearly three weeks after methamphetamine residue was found in the bathrooms’ ductwork.
Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett said there is an important distinction between people struggling with drug addiction versus the actions of a sex offender — and how that informs the decision to notify the community.
“A sex offender is someone who has committed a crime against someone and who is at the risk of re-offending,” he said. “(Drug addicts) aren’t people who represent a particular threat to the community — so there is a difference here.”
Brockett also questioned the value of alerting neighbors about “something they have no control over,” given the mandates of federal anti-discrimination laws. More than a dozen group homes, serving different populations and purposes, already exist in Boulder and “the neighbors typically don’t know they’re there,” the mayor said.
But Pomerance said it comes down to a city’s proper role in determining what takes precedence between guarding the privacy of people seeking treatment for drug dependency and protecting the public’s right to know what the city is doing with their money — and where.
“Finding out after the fact does not feel right to me,” Pomerance said. “Is that equitable?”
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