Since the City Attorney’s Office recently announced that the city, in the guise of its Planning Department, had received only 6 “valid” complaints regarding illegal rooming houses this year, I decided to verify this number. My call to the Planning Department revealed that, indeed, only six valid complaints were received to date, this year. However, there are problems related to using this number as a gauge of the extent of the spread of illegal rooming houses in the city. At least one candidate, Mr. Snapp (Ward 4 council seat), in his reply to a citizen’s inquiry, has already used the figure of six to soft-pedal the nature and extent of the illegal rooming houses.
To understand the figure, it is important to know that the form (click here to see one) leaves it up to the citizen to characterize the complaint. If the complainant does not characterize his/her request as a violation of the single family zoning law, but says there is a noisy, dirty, rental house next door, then that complaint is classified as a violation of the noise or litter law. Additionally, the complaint cannot go forward if the complainant does not check one of two boxes related to confidentiality. One box indicates that the city can reveal the complainant’s name while the other box requests confidentiality with the proviso that, if the case goes to court, then the complainant’s name will be revealed. Any complaint form which has no petitioner named is also considered invalid. Since I have received several emails from concerned homeowners who are genuinely afraid to confront renters or landlords, it stands to reason that one might hesitate before indicating his/her name that may ultimately be revealed in a court case.
Moreover, in order to characterize the complaint as a violation of the zoning law, one has to know that the current code characterizes a single family home with more than three unrelated adults as a code violation. Even candidate Snapp, in an early email to me said “I don't know where the ‘three unrelated’ term came from that (sic) is in the code?” (click here to read the code) Well, if we have presumably well-informed candidates for office who do not know that about the code, then we can infer that a private citizen might find it difficult to fill out correctly a form asking for redress.
Therefore, if the city wants to use the volume of complaints received on a particular issue, it will have to be more circumspect on the subject of the process that leads to its determinations. If one uses a confusing or unclear process, one cannot base solid conclusions on the data thus derived. I call upon the Planning Department to provide detailed information on filling out the various forms and to post those instructions on the website.