Project Lighthouse should focus on unfair over-occupancy law

Recently, the Minnesota Student Association passed Project Lighthouse, which includes several resolutions that attempt to address the housing situation around campus. Unfortunately, in addition to being unrealistic and idealistic, the resolutions don’t adequately address the most important issue: over-occupancy.

Over-occupancy is a result of an unfair and inconsistent zoning law in Minneapolis. For certain areas, the zoning law states that no more than three nonrelated individuals may live in a house. Many “over-occupied” houses are perfectly safe, and, if the residents living in the home were related, there would be no problem. Safety and over-occupancy are two completely separate issues, and we need to stop pretending they are the same.

This zoning law, combined with the recent housing inspections, has resulted in many students receiving eviction notices. Frankly, I would be rather upset if I was forced to leave my home and move all my stuff to another house while I should be studying, working, laughing and frolicking.

So, what are we to do? Well, MSA brought Project Lighthouse to the table. Unfortunately, I feel Project Lighthouse, which could offer impressive and promising resolutions, fails to adequately address the over-occupancy concern. There are effective ways of fighting the zoning law that will yield more immediate and more beneficial results. Before I say what alternative methods could be used, let’s first look at what Project Lighthouse tries to accomplish and why it is not as effective as it could be.

Part of Project Lighthouse calls for the development of more University dormitories and apartments. This just will not happen. The current economic condition makes it nearly impossible for the University to build a multimillion-dollar housing facility. Even if T. Denny Sanford decides to fork over money for the construction of a new dormitory, there still would be a problem. We’d have two Sanford Halls. And that’s just crazy.

Project Lighthouse also aims to lower prices for University dormitories and apartments. However, because our University is cash strapped, it does not make much economic sense to lower housing prices, which would also lessen the chance the University will have the money to build new housing facilities.

To be fair, the author of Project Lighthouse, MSA Vice President Jeff Nath, acknowledged that these resolutions would face stiff opposition from the University because it would force the institution to change and lose money (two things institutions loathe). But, knowing these resolutions would probably not succeed, why bother trying to convince the University?

The final, and most promising, resolution of Project Lighthouse calls for stiffer penalties for irresponsible landlords. I agree with this resolution completely, but I also think it misses the heart of the problem. We should not focus our efforts against landlords who are “forcing students to over-occupy,” as one MSA representative said last Thursday in his column. Landlords don’t threaten students with Chinese water torture to sign an illegal lease. We have a high demand for housing around campus and therefore have a competitive market. Students live in over-occupied houses to pay less rent, plain and simple. Instead of blaming landlords, we should focus our efforts on changing a ridiculous zoning law that hurts students and the University. Furthermore, it is not landlords who over-occupy that students complain about but those who do not keep up their properties.

Instead of lobbying to build more University housing and fighting for stricter penalties for landlords who violate housing codes, we need an immediate solution. Over-occupied homes are not dangerous and pose no immediate threat to students’ well-being. Therefore, I propose that students, the University and landlords all fight together to let student-tenants currently in over-occupied homes live out the duration of their lease, or at least until the end of spring semester.

While this grace period is in effect, students, the University and landlords can fight to change the zoning laws and lobby for stricter penalties for landlords who are truly irresponsible. If the zoning laws are altered to allow five or six nonrelated people to live together, landlords will legally rent out their previously over-occupied houses to full capacity. This will increase the supply of housing, therefore relaxing the demand.

However, for this to work, we need to act quickly. Because Project Lighthouse fails to resolve the issue, students will have to do the dirty work themselves. Call Mayor R.T. Rybak. E-mail Minneapolis City Council member Paul Zerby. Storm City Hall. Tell them your side of the over-occupancy story. Let’s take on the city. Trust me, it will be fun.

Chad Hamblin is a columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected]

The Minnesota Student Association has passed only one of the four resolutions that comprise Project Lighthouse.