Over-occupancy issue result of political spin

As a Minneapolis taxpayer, former Dinkytown area resident and proud University alumnus, I am upset with information disseminated about housing over-occupancy for purely political reasons. Also, I am disappointed in the poor investigative reporting of the resultant unnecessary public expense incurred.

Over-occupancy and tenant safety are not necessarily linked, as the actual cause for September’s horrific fire conclusively demonstrates. Yet with the media’s assistance, public institutions and elected officials quickly launched a knee-jerk reaction that could garner favor with influential groups.

Let’s get the story straight: At the heart of the issue being openly spun by some elected officials, and large institutions covertly, is the demonization of a group of private property owners known as “landlords.”

This target alone is an easy one for council members, homeowners’ associations, aggrieved persons in general and most unfortunately, misinformed citizens. Have no fear. Invoking terms such as “over-occupancy” and “safety” in the same sentence have the desired detrimental effect. Thank you for doing the easy work and not the hard work of finding and reporting on the underlying motivation for the spin.

Why not ask yourselves and the public a reasonable question: If a family of six, seven or more might legally live in a assumedly safe house of 1,250 square feet, then is it not rational to conclude five unrelated student-tenants attending a higher learning institution might do so just as safely? In other words, is the patchwork of zoning ordinances and regulations for rental properties in an area historically used for affordable student housing not potentially part of the problem? Should we really be worried about student-tenants’ safety at the expense of others? What really is the issue here that the local media should be investigating?

Grotesquely, September’s tragic deaths have simply provided politicians and large public institutions the initiative to renew a long and historic fight, albeit to the continued detriment of University students, all while providing themselves political cover. The guise proffered by these motivated institutions and elected officials is safety, but in reality, this is not their concern at all. The underlying desire is to get rid of landlords and make such businesses practically impossible, especially for the smaller businesses owned by individuals, immigrants and even entrepreneurial students.

First, one must accept the fact that student tenants choose the apartment or house they desire to rent primarily because of its proximity to the University and its price. In addition to books, tuition, food and college life, housing costs are a critical aspect of a delicate financial balance in most student tenants’ lives. They have these choices because private citizens have exercised their rights and purchased favorably located properties offered at affordable prices to provide safe rental housing as well as to run modest, yet highly regulated, businesses.

As anyone knows, if a group of students can band together and rent a five-bedroom house a few blocks away from campus for $2,500 a month, they only have to fork out $500 each. If elected officials force tenants to have only three unrelated individuals living within this five-bedroom house, then the three will each pay $833.33 per month. No matter what the rationale is, this is not going to fly when these same tenants are forking over double-digit tuition increases each year because of the poor decisions of another set of elected officials. Affordable housing is the engine that drives over-occupancy in Dinkytown, nothing else.

According to metro-area rental property brokers, there are over 13,500 rental “beds” in southeast Minneapolis with over 8,000 student tenants housed within the Dinkytown area alone. Dinkytown properties’ monthly rates range on average from $350-550 per bedroom, where comparable and often new, on-campus – or adjacent to campus – apartments range from $550-750 or more per bedroom. If you are going to have a 10-15 percent increase in your tuition over the next year, where do you think you would choose to live?

A conservative estimate of those in the know (for example: inspectors, brokers, student tenants and landlords) is that approximately 15-20 percent of the Dinkytown area rental property is over-occupied based on current zoning ordinances. This number conservatively translates into 1,200-1,500 student tenants.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming safety sweeps, any attempt to compel the displacement of this many financially strapped student tenants during the winter season will certainly create a backlash.

There is another solution for these over-burdened student tenants: political activism. Perhaps the real news story will be the turnover of elected officials and changes in institutional policy because of their inability to lead and effectively solve problems for those truly affected by their political opportunism.

James Carson Whedbee Bock is an attorney who represents landlords. He welcomes comments at [email protected]