Over-occupancy issue mischaracterized

Two recent Daily columns on the subject of over-occupancy in the neighborhoods around the University both take the position that the issue can best be resolved by eliminating the zoning restrictions currently in place. While this might seem like a good idea at first glance, closer scrutiny reveals this solution might be too simple. In fact, if society were to apply similar solutions to its other problems, it could virtually eliminate all of them.

In his Friday column, James Bock wrote that the current emphasis on enforcement of rental housing codes establishing occupancy limits is motivated by political opportunism. He offers this conclusion without explaining what the public officials and institutions he maligns might actually gain. Is it at least possible that city and neighborhood officials actually care about the environment students live in? Not according to Bock. He concludes over-occupancy and safety are unrelated. His sole basis appears to be there is no proven link between over-occupancy and the cause of the tragic September fire.

Daily columnist Chad Hamblin extends Bock’s assumptions. Hamblin states definitively that there is no link between over-occupancy and safety. He surmises if the over-occupancy laws were changed, landlords would be able to lawfully rent to more students, thereby increasing the supply of housing. From Hamblin’s perspective, there are no potential drawbacks.

Both Bock and Hamblin assert the zoning codes limiting occupancy are unfair because they restrict the number of unrelated adults, without restricting the number of family members who could reside in a similar-sized unit. Should it matter if five students live in a rental unit rather than five family members? Many people who live in the neighborhoods, including a significant number of University students and staff, think it does. If five or six students live in a house, they typically bring five or six cars with them. The majority end up parked on city streets. The family of five would likely have one or two cars that could be parked off-street. Emergency response vehicles and snow plows have to make their way through city streets. Streets congested with parked cars are obviously more difficult to navigate, creating a safety concern for the entire neighborhood.

What about use of the rental unit itself? In a building with three legal bedrooms, a family of five can get by using only the legal space for sleeping. If five students move in to the same space, it is a virtual certainty that in order to gain privacy, at least a couple of them are going to use basement or attic space for sleeping. Unless there are adequate egress windows, those students are not safe.

The recent safety sweeps have focused on safety first. According to the Minneapolis Department of Inspections, 210 buildings had been inspected as of Nov. 12. Inspectors have found violations in approximately 75 percent of inspected properties. These include 62 occupancy violations involving over-occupancy and illegal use of unsafe basement and attic space. According to Minneapolis housing inspections deputy director JoAnn Velde, they began the sweep with the perception that most of the property would be safe, even if it was over-occupied. Unfortunately, that is not what inspectors have been finding.

Over-occupancy has many causes. When University area landlords advertise three-bedroom properties at monthly rates in excess of $2,000, everyone knows those properties are going to be over-occupied. Who is to blame? It might be the landlord who purchased the property knowing it could only be lawfully rented to three people. It could be the student-renters who might have signed the lease knowing they would need extra roommates in order to pay the rent. Maybe it’s the University, which cannot supply enough affordable housing on campus. It could be the city, which gave the landlord a provisional license without knowing anything about the person or the property. Perhaps it’s the newspaper, which allowed the landlord to run the ad that everyone knew would result in an illegal rental.

Over-occupancy and safety in student housing are complex issues. There are no simple answers. Fortunately, the Minnesota Student Association, Minneapolis, the Como and Marcy Holmes neighborhoods, the University, individual students and several area landlords are now working together to find long-term solutions that will ultimately enhance the off-campus living experience for everyone. Anyone who wants can criticize these efforts, but no one should simply deny that real problems exist.

Bill Dane is an attorney for the University’s Student Legal Service, a Como neighborhood resident and a board member of the Southeast Como Improvement Association. Send comments to [email protected]