“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.