Sunday, August 17, 2008

Singing the Single Family Blues in the Bluegrass State

I received the following emails and photos from some readers in Lexington, Kentucky which is the home of the University of Kentucky with approximately 27,000 students among its 279,000 citizens. For purposes of comparison, Bellingham’s WWU has about 12,500 students among 75,000 citizens.

We are here in Lexington, Ky and experiencing similar problems in our neighbourhood which is close to the University campus. Our issues and attempt to get City Council to work with us sound identical to yours. Attached a couple of snaps taken round here of "group rental homes." [See photos below] This is an uphill battle for all of us. We no sooner make some headway with the students than it's time for the old bunch to move out and a new bunch to move in.


And this, also from Lexington:


I happened on your blog… this afternoon. We have exactly the same problems here in Lexington, Kentucky that you have in Bellingham (my wife and I went to grad school at WSU in Pullman: Washington's a beautiful state). I don't know whether to be encouraged or depressed.

Anyway, I notice that a fair amount of talk on your blog centers around the definition of "family." That's the case here as well. My contention here is that the term "family" is part of the problem. One argument about student rental houses used to be that "...these are single-family houses, and the people living in them are clearly NOT members of the same family..." The result was that the definition of family was expanded to include any number of unrelated people who customarily live together (or words to that effect). So helpful.

I don't believe the purpose of any zoning ordinance is to support a given view of "family," whether traditional or nontraditional. We make the mistake of calling our "houses" by the name "single-family dwellings," and by doing so suggest that the underlying intent of a residential zone has something to do with encouraging families to live in the neighborhood.

The small houses in the neighborhoods that surround the University of Kentucky were built 80 years ago, and were intended to be homes that people would buy and live in. The American Dream of home ownership. In other words, they were intended to be owner-occupied. As such, they were built to appropriate specifications, and were supported by an appropriately sized and scaled infrastructure, etc. Were they envisioned as profit centers intended to warehouse renters in unsafe and unsanitary conditions? No, of course not. That's what the builders of the early 20th century were trying to offer: an escape from the filthy, cramped, unhealthy, and crime-ridden tenements of the cities, not a return to them (albeit some 80 years later).

That's what the ordinance intends: owner occupation. As it turns out, it's also the easiest thing to determine, as the publicly-accessible property valuation website lists who owns what, and where they reside relative to that. If an owner doesn't resides in a house he owns, it should (I argue) be considered a lodging house (an illegal use in our R1 and R2 zones) by default, and should be either regulated appropriately or shut down.

I'm having one hell of a time getting any traction for that view here, which either means that I'm wrong or that I'm right.

Anyway, thanks for the blog.


This is the reply I sent to to Dennis: Thanks again for your comments. … The family definition issue is a contentious one, no doubt. … Maybe we ought to just eliminate the word and replace it by a term like "single social group" while keeping the same definition. Zoning, as I see it, is for limiting uses. For single family/multifamily areas it is density. Families, for planning purposes, tend to average out. In this town, family units are less than three on average. So, families are somewhat self-regulating as they average out. Singles renting homes are not self-regulating in that way. The economics drive maximum occupancy. As for owner occupancy, 50% of Bellinghams' single family homes are rented, most by students from Western Washington University. A total shut down of these rentals would be an interesting undertaking and politically impossible. Regulating is next best but there is stiff opposition here from the landlords, who, by virtue of their associations, can mobilize. Even among the live-in homeowners here there is a laissez-faire attitude which I find incomprehensible. Many want to fight the parking, noise, litter, etc. That is like fighting tuberculosis by giving cough suppressants. We had one episode in which the police did perform a mass ticketing for parking violations all along some streets where illegal rooming houses proliferate. The screams from the students (and the WWU administration) were deafening. The result: no more such ticketing.

As for Kate's comments, she has raised a good point. Dealing with the turnover of thousands of student renters annually means that enforcement efforts across the board must be constantly and evenly maintained. The university must accept a major role in educating students, not only about behavior but also on the laws pertaining to home rentals. One home-owner here, who has made it a point for years to meet with and engage students moving onto his street, said to me, "I am tired of training these puppies."

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