Sustainable for whom?

“Sustainability” has cropped up frequently in city policy statements in recent years, often accompanied by pleas for denser, more affordable housing to promote a style of living that proponents maintain is more energy-efficient and compatible with mass transit.

But Montford resident Bernard Carman says he’s not impressed. He's owned a historic home on Cumberland Avenue, just north of downtown, for 22 years, undertaking extensive renovations (the house didn't have a working bathroom when he purchased it) while watching neighboring derelict buildings morph into swank bed-and-breakfasts. Carman shares the massive, eight-bedroom residence with seven roommates, providing affordable housing (currently $400 a month) without requiring potentially intrusive new construction or economic incentives from the city.

“When I was looking around the area back then, I figured I could get a fixer-upper with some extra rooms and rent them out to offset the expenses,” he recalls. The house “looked nearly condemned when I first saw it, but it had a lot of promise. At the time, it was a sketchy neighborhood, but some of us were taking risks, and it's gotten a lot better.”

Carman proudly shows off the refinished hardwood floors, the enclosed porch and an addition, all reflecting both his own handiwork and that of other folks he’s shared his home with over the years.

All this may soon change, however. In July, a neighbor complained about a junk car on Carman’s property (Carman says the owner, a former roommate, was going to remove it). The neighbor also said there seemed to be a lot of people living there. And though Carman had never had any trouble with the city before, staff now say he’s violating both local zoning and state rules, which prohibit more than five unrelated people from living under one roof. Carman could be fined up to $100 a day unless he kicks three people out — which he says could force him to sell his home or, given the unlikelihood of that in this economy, face foreclosure and bankruptcy.

“There's building-safety issues when more than five unrelated people live in a house,” Assistant Planning Director Shannon Tuch explains. “We've told [Carman] that, if he can resolve the building and fire-safety concerns, we'll talk about a rezoning. He clearly has stated that he's not interested or can't afford those.”

Carman, however, sees things differently. “Whichever neighbor had a problem with it, they could've come to me and I would've explained what was going on,” he notes. “Instead, I'm being put in a situation that could ruin me entirely. The city's been talking about affordable housing for decades; I've been providing that without any subsidy.”

That’s how we’ve always done it


To accommodate the home’s current occupants, it would have to be designated a “boarding house.” Ironically, that’s what it was back in the early ’70s, before Carman bought it, and if it had remained so, it would have been grandfathered under the 1997 Unified Development Ordinance. But in the ’80s, the property was redesignated single-family, and current zoning rules prohibit boarding houses in the area, which Tuch says is necessary to preserve its single-family character.

“This is all based on life-safety requirements,” she explains. “When you have eight related people living in a house, there's a head of household or parental figures who would act altruistically or in the family's best interest to get everybody out. When you have eight unrelated people, it's pretty much every man for himself."

In any case, boarding houses are pretty rare these days, and to Carman, the emphasis on blood and legal relations likewise seems out of touch with current lifestyles.

“They pulled this number out of a hat, apparently, and seem to assume adults can't take care of themselves when a fire happens unless they're related,” he points out. “Where do you draw these lines? To avoid eviction, they say I have to install sprinklers and basically make this a commercial space. Do apartments have to do this? Do bed-and-breakfasts?”

The answer, in most cases, appears to be no. And with plentiful parking space around his property, fire extinguishers and a third-floor fire escape, Carman believes his home is safe and not a nuisance.

Asked about the rationale behind the five-person limit, Building Safety Director Robert Griffin simply says it's been that way as long as anyone can remember. “I've been working here for 32 years, and that's always been the designation for a single family. That's the rule around the country and even internationally: It's five people,” he reports, adding, “We're just enforcing the rules here.”

Carman, however, points to New Orleans, which established an “existing nonconforming” designation to accommodate various long-standing uses that don't mesh with present zoning technicalities.

Selective enforcement?


This isn't the first time the city's been accused of applying occupancy rules arbitrarily. In 2008, Zacchaeus House, a ministry serving the homeless, was driven out of a residence on French Broad Avenue downtown, for operating a church in a house. The Rev. Amy Cantrell accused the city of using the rule to drive out a group that was providing housing for the homeless but had often criticized the city's policies. City staff said they were simply responding to neighbors’ complaints (see “A House Without a Home,” March 19, 2008 Xpress).

Carman believes his kind of living situation is common here, particularly in neighborhoods with large, older homes. If the rule were enforced citywide, he maintains, many people would be evicted.

“There wasn't a problem here until the city created one; if we find bad laws, we should fix them. There's affordable housing here already, and they're trying to stop it,” Carman asserts. “You sweep the whole city, and I guarantee you there's tons of situations like this. There's going to be a lot of people on the street.”

Tuch, meanwhile, says: “We don't go around surveying homes; it's kind of complaint-based. It's all a balancing act: We're trying to balance the need for density and affordable housing with the community desire to preserve the character of their single-family neighborhoods. When you start increasing the number of bodies on a piece of property, you're increasing the activity, the noise, the number of cars. In less dense, quieter areas, it can become an intrusive issue."

And though Carman and his various roommates have lived in the neighborhood for 22 years without apparent problems, Tuch says, “Well, this year someone complained."

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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41 thoughts on “Sustainable for whom?

  1. Ashevillejoe

    Nice article. It is soooo confusing, one day the city approves high density in Montford, the next, it evicts residents of high density housing. It also most seems like the city is trying to give us a libertarian civics lesson “Look kids, it doesn’t matter what our stated goals are, rule number one is always get approval from us before you fulfill our goals, and if there is no profit for big business in the way your working than the answer is no”

  2. “It also most seems like the city is trying to give us a libertarian civics lesson”

    Quite the contrary.

    This is a lesson, not in a libertarian philosophy of rights (which would solve the problem), but in the convoluted contradictory overbearing progressive public policy of economic interventionism.
    ………………………

  3. Ashevillejoe

    Irony Tim, Irony. Oh and in a bit of turnabout as fair play how do you feel about the city giving tax breaks to certain developers?

  4. JonathanBarnard

    This situation bothers me from the standpoint of wanting to promote sustainability and affordable housing, but I’m not even sure the five-person limit makes sense from a safety standpoint. If Carman is forced to leave those bedrooms empty, those tenants will have to find housing elsewhere. Located in Montford, they likely have a very short commute now. If instead they live somewhere with an average Asheville commute, they will drive more. I’m almost certain that the increased risk of death by auto accident in an average-commute location far outweighs the increased chances of death by fire in Carman’s house.

    Forcing homeowners to leave bedrooms empty is bad policy. Large group houses and boarding houses, especially if they are close to downtown, should be encouraged for many reasons. The laws should be changed.

  5. Dionysis

    ““This is all based on life-safety requirements…When you have eight related people living in a house, there’s a head of household or parental figures who would act altruistically or in the family’s best interest to get everybody out.”

    Is that a fact? Based upon what objective study? Maybe one conducted when ‘Leave it to Beaver’ was in production decades ago.

    “When you have eight unrelated people, it’s pretty much every man for himself.”

    So?

    “Asked about the rationale behind the five-person limit, Building Safety Director Robert Griffin simply says it’s been that way as long as anyone can remember.”

    Well now, if that’s the way it’s always been, then that should suffice as a reason.

  6. Shannon Tuch: “When you have eight unrelated people, it’s pretty much every man for himself.”

    Can we get the data sources for this broad sociological claim by city staff?
    ……………………….

  7. Dionysis

    I’d still like to know the basis for the idea that there is some kind of “head of household” or “parental figure” that will wisk everyone out of harm’s way “altruistically.” What if a fire or other disaster dares to inconveniently occur when this “parental figure” is at work, or out-of-town, or ill or otherwise not around? Will people just mill around helplessly without a “parental figure” to direct them? The whole idea seems ridiculous.

  8. OFF TOPIC ALERT

    “how do you feel about the city giving tax breaks to certain developers?”

    1. When the city gives tax breaks to certain developers it shows that city council understands that tax relief stimulates the economy. We need more of it. But not for favored businesses, for everyone.

    2. Government should not be in the business of interfering in the marketplace.
    ………………………….

  9. Betty

    This story is appalling. The enforcement issue is so arbitrary, being “complaint-driven.” Yeah, right — that’s the way to handle things, Asheville. Talk about unjust, unfair, and unreasonable.

  10. Aggie Jacques

    In times such as these I cannot fathom why the City of Asheville would even entertain such an idea. Mr. Carman is providing a much needed service for people who live alone and cannot afford more than what they are paying. In 22 years he has never caused one minutes trouble for anyone. The neighborhood is graced by this beautiful home. It certainly is not as if he were providing a slum house. Now the city wants to put an end to this and cause this man to lose everything he has because one “jerk” in his neighborhood complained. The City of Asheville should be ashamed and I am very happy I do not live there. I wonder if when the next report on the best places to live comes out if someone would relate this story what would happen.

  11. J

    Tim,

    Are you suggesting that when Brownie and friends empty the affordable housing trust fund into the coffers of developers that they’re playing favorites and rewarding certain developers (connected ones) over others and that it’s not a fair process?

    If you tell me that, Tim, next I bet you’ll try and tell me that FLS Energy, of which Brownie is president, sells solar panels to the developers that he votes to gives tax payer money to; in other words, Brownie’s private pay check comes from the tax payer money that he gave to the developer, that turns around and gives it to him. If you said that, Tim, you’d be right. MHO has cleaned house in obtaining city funds, and buys solar panels from Brownie. Total coincidence. http://www.flsenergy.com/index.php/learn-about-the-experiences-fls-energy-has-had/see-fls-energy-in-action-as-we-work-on-current-solar-installations/gallery/8

  12. “The enforcement issue is so arbitrary, being “complaint-driven.”

    I agree. Complaint-driven code enforcement is arbitrary and constitutes unequal treatment before the law. To be fair, the City would have to receive anonymous complaints about every residence in Montford (to begin with) merely suspected of having “too many people living there.” I propose that this zoning compliance canvassing project be initiated immediately upon Mr. Carman’s compliance with the letter of zoning regulation.

    Secondly, to be in compliance, barring major renovations, Mr. Carman would have to evict three of his eight tenants from his eight-room three-story home and leave those three bedrooms empty; that is, unoccupied and generating no income for the homeowner, contrary to his judgment. This constitutes a government taking. The home existed before the law. The new law deprives Mr. Carman of the right to use and dispose of his property as he sees fit. When the government takes property for a public purpose, it must compensate the property owner. Mr. Carman should receive a check for $1,500 per month from the City of Asheville to compensate him for the loss of income producing property forcibly imposed on him by law.
    ……………………….

  13. vrfurrious

    How about (local government) doing the ‘right thing’?
    How about ‘seniority rule’? Mr.Carman has been providing affordable housing and “COMMUNITY” for 22 years. A new resident moves into the COMMUNITY and decides he wants Carman out, because why, exactly?
    A negative property value for a single family unit?

    Screw ‘the rules’, be a rebel, city of Asheville, do the right thing. Show capability of independent thought. In case Mr.Griffen has missed it, times have changed, and so must the antiquated rules.

    “every man for himself”, says it all, about Tuch’s “character”. Appalling.

  14. Margaret Williams

    J: Dale Freudenberger might be surprised by your claim about City Council member Brownie Newman: Co-founder Freudenberger is the company’s prez, Newman’s the director of finance. By City Council rules, generally speaking, members can’t vote on issues they might benefit from financially.

  15. “City Council member Brownie Newman: Co-founder Freudenberger is the company’s prez, Newman’s the director of finance.”

    In politics appearances and perceptions are paramount. It looks like certain pet projects get passed with little if any discussion around the Council meetings.

  16. JonathanBarnard

    I wish people on this thread would stop attacking the character of city employees. They are just doing their jobs.

    The focus should be on getting City Council to change the policy.

  17. vrfurrious

    “Just doing their jobs” ??? If the people (were) doing their jobs they’d be the FIRST to get City Council to change the arbitrary, self-serving, policy.

    I wonder if that was the predominant thought of 1941; they were just doing their ‘job’.

    Any ideas on how to get city council to change THIS policy. I’m not up to par on its members, can you tell me how many have lived in Asheville for 22 years?

  18. vrfurrious

    How about (local government) doing the ‘right thing’?
    How about ‘seniority rule’? Mr.Carman has been providing affordable housing and “COMMUNITY” for 22 years. A new resident moves into the COMMUNITY and decides he wants Carman out, because why, exactly?
    A negative property value for a single family unit?

    Screw ‘the rules’, be a rebel, city of Asheville, do the right thing. Show capability of independent thought. In case Mr.Griffen has missed it, times have changed, and so must the antiquated rules.

    “every man for himself”, says it all, about Tuch’s “character”. Appalling.

  19. J

    Margaret,

    Thanks for the correction; though I imagine Freudenberger would correct me without being too surprised.

    You’ll recall that a similar issue came up in January when Council first entertained Brownie’s proposal about the city lending funs for green retro-fitting. It was ruled because the money wouldn’t go to Brownie’s company with 100% certainty, that he couldn’t directly perceive a financial benefit and was allowed to vote on it.

    It makes one wonder how restrictive/open the city’s ethic policy is, and who enforces or monitors it, or even questions it. At what point is it a happy coincidence that we have a council that pushes green projects, and a council member who happens to be a recent addition (and a high profile one at that) to this green industry, and at what point should we ask questions?

    If I had to wager a guess, Brownie will continue to appropriate money out of the HTF for MHO, and MHO will continue to purchase solar panels from FLS. It’s just certainly odd that Brownie gets paid out of the money he appropriated.

  20. Mr. Carman met with the city this morning. He will be in conformance by Dec 1st. He will not have to pay the $100/day fines he was threatened 90 days ago. He will have to kick out three paying tenants and keep three bedrooms of his eight bedrooms house empty at all times to conform with zoning regulations. The loss of rental income from those three rooms would cause him to default on his mortgage and lose his historic Montford home of 22 years. If he raises the rent on the remaining tenants to compensate for the loss, five people will be paying for eight rooms.

    This is Homelessness Awareness Week.
    ……………………

  21. UnaffiliatedVoter

    Hey ‘J’…Ive often wondered about the kind of $$$ that must flow toward Brownie Newman Solar biz from arranged government and ‘nonprofit’ sources.

    Last year, Newmans company, I believe, scored the BIGGEST solar panel installation to date in NC with a BIG government contract at Camp Lejeune NC…anyone remember those details? It was announced in the Rawleigh NewsObserver.com but not sure it made it to local ‘news’ …

  22. tatuaje

    D.L.Dial, I really don’t think you should post about where people live.

    Moderators, I think you should edit that out and keep stuff like that from being posted. I know I wouldn’t appreciate it if it concerned me.

  23. UnaffiliatedVoter

    Bernard Carman will ultimately prevail here.

    Yes the City should compensate him for his forced losses!!!

  24. Barry Summers

    D.L.Dial, I really don’t think you should post about where people live.

    Moderators, I think you should edit that out and keep stuff like that from being posted. I know I wouldn’t appreciate it if it concerned me.

    I agree. This is inappropriate.

  25. chanzy

    I thought the rule was 1 person per bedroom, with additional occupancy in the case of a married couple renting a single room. There are many boarding houses all over town in single family residential zones. Complaints of “too many people around” is culturally subjective and hardly seems actionable.

  26. David Frayer

    So what the city is saying is that in a B&B 16 people can be safe in an unfamiliar surrounding but 8 grown adults under one roof are incapable of taking care of themselves. So the halfway house next door to my place is VERY unsafe, i better run over and tell them that the city counsel does not approve! Amazing, this from a council that can’t even get the buses to run on time.

  27. cwaster

    Yep, better tell all those B&B’s they are in violation and must comply right away…
    Does certainly seem like a ridiculous double standard.

  28. quinky mcfurklepuss

    PLEASE if someone in the legal profession can help Bernard please contact him. PLEASE

    Before the Beds and Breakfasts, before the gentrification of Montford, long before Asheville was considered the “Paris of the South”, Bernard was offering affordable rooms to share in his home like people do in MOST COLLEGE TOWNS. I lived in houses like this in Asheville when I was just starting out in life. It gave me a chance to go to school, live affordably and get a start in my career. Bernard’s home does the same for artists, students, entrepreneurs, business people…the same people you’d meet anywhere around town. They’re making Asheville home and helping it grow.

    TWENTY TWO YEARS…not 22 months…YEARS he’s been in Montford and a new neighbor has a problem with things and doesn’t have the guts to come speak to him about his “problem”. Whoever the neighbor is should be ashamed for not just changing the housing situation for many people (where are they going to live now?) but, basically destroying someone and a way of life that was once cherished in Asheville. I guarantee that this isn’t helping build our community. It’s destroying it.

    Who will the city come after next?

    Also, what IF all the residents at his home were all related? THEN they could live together? Someone’s been taking crazy pills down at City Hall.

    Hear that sound? That’s the chipping away of our freedoms.

  29. John Marsh

    John Marsh November 17, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    When Mr Carmen purchased his house in montford, the neighborhood was a hodgepodge of single family dwellings, houses cut up into apartments for students(Some of these I know were owned by at least one UNCA professor) and out and out slum tenements, low income people cheaply camping in the decaying hulks of former up scale and middle class family homes. Mr Carmen and his tenants, however, were not content with simply camping. Carmen, with some help from his renters improved, expanded, revalued the house on Cumberland Avenue. You should think of him as a sort of pioneer, who is now not considered enough of a Gentleman to live in the re-gentrified neighborhood he helped create! Just who’s job is it anyway to inspect every residents parking space to be sure all the cars belong to specific individuals, and are in specific states of repair. Some one is obviously trying to snowball legalistic grief on Mr.Carmen, so he’ll have to sell his home undervalued to some one else’ s advantage. I can’t help but wonder who this person or persons might be. They seem to have discovered that ‘All animals are equal, but, some animals are more equal than others.’ So look out residents of Montford! Right now someone could be checking your cars out, and from there gathering other technical legal in- discrepancies in your living arrangements with ulterior intent. .

  30. Margaret Williams

    It is indeed “not cool” to say where folks live. The post has been deleted.

  31. Barry Summers

    Maybe if all of Bernard’s roomies got married to each other, the City would let them co-habitate.

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