Tenant policy could change

by Vadim Lavrusik

Ward 2 Council member Cam Gordon is living illegally – technically, anyway.

Gordon’s household has six family members, but under the current zoning code 546.50, only five related persons are allowed to occupy the home.

The biggest issue with the maximum occupancy code is not in regard to families, but instead to how it affects those who are unrelated, Gordon said.

“It seems like there is housing discrimination going on,” he said.

The current code is unfair to students and other people who are living in a safe environment, he said, but by city codes they are over-occupying their home.

Because of a current University area housing inspections sweep, students living in over-occupied houses are afraid they will have to vacate their homes. Many aren’t even aware they are breaking the law.

Gordon is hoping to fix that problem by exploring options with a work group to change the city’s current maximum occupancy codes, which could allow more students to occupy a house.

While student leaders support the change, Gordon has met resistance and debate from neighborhood leaders and residents.

A need for reform

The city has two housing codes that apply to the maximum number of people who can occupy a dwelling.

Safety code 244.810 establishes the number of people who can live together based on the square footage of the home. Zoning code 546.50 bases the maximum number on the zone the home falls in, and is the code that’s most often enforced.

Code 546.50 caused about 75 students to be evicted from their houses during the 2003 inspections sweep.

“I don’t think the current code is enforceable or fair,” Gordon said.

Gordon and the work group are looking at what other cities have done to create a maximum occupancy code with the best possible balance, he said.

“We don’t have a solution yet,” he said. “There are many other livability issues we are looking to address.”

He said it’s too early to tell what actions he will take after the work group finishes in the next month.

Robin Garwood, Gordon’s aide, said students are not following the current maximum occupancy codes, and the city has a hard time enforcing them.

Garwood said the code is not fair to students and unrelated people because if the house has four bedrooms, but is zoned as a single-family dwelling, only three people can live there.

“We’re trying to come up with a fairer way for occupancy that is based on the size of the housing,” he said.

To prevent landlords from chopping space into bedrooms, houses would be required to have common space, so that the house isn’t only made of bedrooms, he said.

Another option is changing the definition of family because in many cases students who live together are much like a family, he said.

Reforming the code would also improve communication between students and city officials, Garwood said.

Students who are living in poor housing conditions or have problems are afraid to contact the city because they fear eviction for over-occupancy, he said.

“It does give landlords the position of power because they’ll say, ‘Don’t tell anyone that you are living in a pit because you will be evicted for over-occupancy,’ ” he said.

Neighborhood resistance

Last month, Gordon created a work group consisting of landlords, neighborhood leaders and renters who explored options in changing the law.

But after the first meeting, most members left the group because they disagreed with Gordon’s idea.

Bill Dane, a staff attorney at Student Legal Services and a Como resident, said he attended the first meeting, but never returned.

Dane said he disagrees with Gordon’s idea to have the code based on the living space of the house.

“That is the single worst idea I had ever heard,” he said. “There would be zero political support for that kind of a solution.”

Landlords would be able to add on to their homes so that they could house more students, creating an even bigger problem, he said. Such a law would only reward landlords who allow over-occupancy, he said.

“The few remaining home owners (in Como) are not going to remain if the over-occupancy situation is allowed to continue,” he said.

Also, he said he doesn’t agree that the current code is unfair because laws have always catered to families.

Even though the current zoning code allows a maximum of five family members to live in a single family unit, the courts would strike down any attempt to enforce the law because it discriminates against the family’s size, Dane said.

Joe Ring, president of the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association, said that there is no problem with the current code; the problem is enforcing it.

Having maximum occupancy based on living space would drive in more people and landlords would be able to get even more money from their rental properties, Ring said.

“(Gordon’s) intentions are honorable, but there are unintended consequences that would follow,” he said.

Students express support

Student leaders have expressed support for a need to change the current zoning ordinance.

Adam Engelman, chair of the Facilities, Housing and Transit Committee for the Minnesota Student Association, said he supports Gordon’s plan to change the maximum occupancy code.

A lot of students are worried about being evicted during inspections for over-occupancy, but ultimately inspections will improve the conditions of houses around the University campus, Engelman said.

Former MSA President and University alumna Emily Serafy Cox said she also supports Gordon’s effort to change the code. She’s participating in Gordon’s work group, which meets again in two weeks.

There needs to be a change because the current maximum occupancy code that is based on zoning isn’t working, but the safety code based on square footage would be much more appropriate, Serafy Cox said.

To prevent landlords from adding on to their homes to increase occupancy, she said the group has discussed including a provision that would prohibit an increase in occupancy if add-ons to the structure were made, she said.

“Part of the point of all this is to improve the livability in the neighborhood,” she said.