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During a Pandemic, Direct Democracy Comes by Home Delivery

Thanks to Covid-19, housing advocates in Colorado adopted a novel tactic to gather signatures for a ballot initiative designed to open up more homes to renters. 

A home in central Boulder, where housing prices have been spiking.  

A home in central Boulder, where housing prices have been spiking.  

Photographer: Cliff Grassmick/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images.

This spring, the founders of the Boulder ballot initiative campaign Bedrooms Are for People wanted to drum up support for a measure that would amend the city charter and relax the rules around household occupancy in the fast-growing Colorado city. Average rents in Boulder jumped 41% between 2011 and 2018, and some YIMBY advocates — those are adherents of the “Yes In My Backyard” movement — targeted a city rule that prevents more than three unrelated people from living together in the same house. The amended city charter would set the occupancy of homes at the number of bedrooms plus one. And as an amendment to the city charter, the rule would be part of Boulder’s constitution.

But Bedrooms Are for People hit a pandemic-related snag on March 24, when Boulder’s stay-at-home order went into effect. The campaign needed to gather thousands of signatures, in the face of motivated opposition, to get the initiative on the ballot in November. Even after a stay-at-home order lifted in early May, Covid-19 pretty much ruled out using the usual signature-gathering tactics of going door-to-door with a clipboard or soliciting supporters at public events. 

Coronavirus didn’t stop the YIMBYs from following through with their ballot push, though. The campaign changed course. Instead of striking out to hunt for signatures, the organizers instead asked people to sign up online for an in-person visit. When enough people in a given ZIP Code signaled their interest, the campaign dispatched a masked volunteer with a clipboard, who drove to each address to collect a signature. To get over the finish line, the campaign redefined what it means to pound the pavement — essentially mounting a petition via delivery.