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Op-Ed: We Need the ‘Rule of Three’ but That’s Just a Start

By Marion Blackburn

Call it the “Summer of Three.” No more than three, that is.

All summer, Greenville has been abuzz about possibly changing the ordinance that says only three unrelated people can share a house. That’s because in August, City Council will reconsider this city policy. The request to re-evaluate it came in March when we adopted our yearly goals. I voted against reconsidering it.

For 30 years, Greenville has capped at three the unrelated residents who can share a home. It became law when the harmful effects of crowding too many people in a house became clear.  Today, it irrefutably protects the residential quality of all neighborhoods, especially those around the university. Those who want to change it disagree; they even claim it somehow contributes to the problems that stress the university area today.

But that faulty reasoning fails to recognize the many other pressures in those neighborhoods, where homes go unrepaired by owners who don’t live in them and which are filled with renters whose futures lie elsewhere. Those calling for a higher ceiling of four, five or six tenants imagine that more people, with more cars, traffic, trash, and noise, at one residence will somehow improve this situation. Yes, the Rule of Three serves the neighborhood (and the city) — but far more is needed.

If we genuinely want to improve the neighborhoods near ECU, it’s time to get serious. The real issue is not this ordinance (or any single factor) but finding the political will to take actions that will serve its long-term health. It’s overdue.

This sudden interest in the stability, safety and upkeep of the university neighborhood gives us the opportunity to at last adopt programs — say a privilege license for property owners to rent their homes — that preserve its safety, quality of life and appearance. We need to work in a global manner to reduce its stresses. We need long-term solutions to chronic problems like trash, traffic and speeding, deteriorating homes and crime. We need assurances about the upkeep of rented single family homes. We need to preserve density limits.

What we don’t need is to allow more people to live together in a home. Putting more unrelated people in a residence will compound existing problems in any neighborhood. Even if we impose guidelines, raising the cap is bad news. Because those guidelines will be violated. And if we change the rule in one area (such as the university community), you can bet your neighborhood will be next. It’s just a matter of time. There’s money to be made.

Yes, discussion of this ordinance often gravitates to a conversation about university neighborhoods, but people from every council district are concerned about changing the rule. They see rental housing increasing in their neighborhoods and want to keep the rule in place. They know the very problems that have coalesced in university neighborhoods can happen in their own. They believe, as I do, that making it more profitable to rent than to own a single family home will lead to more rental property in their neighborhoods.

The university community is a dynamic area with pressures unlike any other in our city. If we want to make it safer, improve its deteriorating homes and curb trash and parking problems, then we must shift our focus away from this ordinance. We need strategies for its health and growth. Here, as a start, are five.

1. Property directory and privilege license. When I decided to run for City Council, I rode through District 3 with two code enforcement officers. That day brought heart-breaking scenes. In one case, I saw a two-story staircase collapsed in a heap, with jutting boards, nails and banisters here and there. The balcony above was open, so one false step off the landing meant a broken back or worse. A curious child climbing onto that lethal pile would be crushed to death.

The same day, I saw a residence with raw sewage seeping onto the floor. Did I mention children lived there, too?

In the university community, I saw porches with bizarre furnishings: something like an electric chair on one; living room couches, car parts, kitchen chairs and odd pieces from unidentifiable things on others. Most of them had trash. Bags of it. On the porch. Many of those porches were also rotting. In the yards were cars on jacks and the ubiquitous kegs and plastic cups. Garages were packed with junk.

A key step to improve the university community – crime, home deterioration and trash problems — is to adopt a permit or privilege license for renting a single family home.

Currently, only the honor system assures tenants of minimum housing standards. Anyone can lease or rent a home without a safety inspection. Even without addressing the other issues facing tenants — such as a lack of regulation regarding deposit returns, charges for damages, and a tenant bill of rights – we can start with instituting a simple privilege license for single-family home rentals. That would allow the creation of a directory with contact information for property owners.

A privilege license would provide a way to address chronic problems on any rental property. The directory of contact information for rental homes would give police quick contact with a landlord in case of criminal activity. It would provide code enforcement officers and neighbors a reliable way to reach the owners responsible for the property and its tenants.

There are benefits for the property owner, too. Having a business license and directory listing offers additional prestige. In Greenville’s competitive housing market, this certificate would demonstrate to renters the landlord’s commitment to minimum housing standards, reliable repairs and fair dealings. It would also provide a database for newcomers, with a brief description of the property’s assets and features.

2. Fines. We need to collect fines and fees. As is, fines and fees can  go unpaid for years and are applied as a property lien, collectible only when the property sells. Better collection would discourage violations and lead to better-maintained rental properties.

3. Crime program. Crime is often cited as a reason to raise the cap on how many people can live in a single-family home. That’s like saying when I stand outside in the rain, I get wet, so I’m going to buy another lawnmower. No, when it’s raining, go inside or get an umbrella.

If we want to address crime in the university neighborhood, then let’s use the appropriate tools:

— focused police patrols. We need officers for patrols and a sustainable long-term plan in the area. We need to deploy officers where they’re needed and when, such as weekend late nights after the bars close. Anyone, anytime, should feel safe anywhere in the university neighborhood. With dedicated patrols, the reduction in crime is dramatic, as we saw a few years ago when IMPACT teams patrolling these neighborhoods suppressed break-ins and other crimes over the holidays when many people were out of town.

— leases stipulating that tenants will be evicted for serious criminal activity. We can find good direction in the Crime Free rental program already in use at some apartment complexes.

4. Deteriorating property. The Tar River University Neighborhood Report and Plan, adopted as part of the city’s Horizons Comprehensive Plan give us a clear road map for improvement that includes these steps:
— an expanded loan program for the conversion of rental property.
— a home-improvement matching grant fund for older single-family, owner-occupied dwellings to encourage qualified home improvement updates to raise the tax value and marketability of older dwellings.
— a gateway and streetscape plan with signs to create a sense of place and enhance the connection between the neighborhood, uptown and ECU.
— steps that preserve the historical, architectural and single-family character of the College View and University neighborhoods.

5. Quality of life. The university neighborhood plan also calls for traffic-calming and more one-way streets. We also need more parks in this neighborhood and improvements to existing parks.

After attending the public meetings this summer about the no-more-than-three ordinance, and considering the phone calls, emails and private conversations I’ve had, I am sure of one thing: opinions come from every quadrant. Homeowners, students, neighborhood associations, landlords – each has a perspective.

The ordinance in place benefits neighborhoods. It’s hard to imagine the state of neighborhoods, especially those within walking distance to the university, without this ordinance.

We have an enviable urban village feeling near the university, where an eclectic mix of residents creates an engaging crossroads. It’s where ideas meet immediacy. Along with its energy, we need to make sure it has a residential quality of life. We need to make sure you can walk down the street without dodging trash and abandoned mattresses. That your windows don’t rattle with passing cars because of modified mufflers, amplified music and speeding motors. We need concrete measures that allow owners of historic property to improve their homes, along with reasonable expectations that landlords will maintain their rental houses. We need predictability.

In the end, if we are going to review our definition of family as no more than three unrelated people, then we must look beyond the language and the rhetoric and see what the rule does – and why it matters.

Marion Blackburn represents District 3 on the Greenville City Council.

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Responses (4)

  1. Maury York says:

    Nicely said, Marion. Thank you. I hope the city will embrace your ideas, and others, to revitalize this neighborhood. It is a great place to live, with wonderful neighbors, mature trees, sidewalks, and cultural amenities nearby, but it can be better. With rising gas prices, ECU employees will find the neighborhood increasingly attractive as a place to live. Subtantial tax credits in the College View Historic District can save owners thousands of dollars in renovation costs. The neighborhood can and should have a great future, but only if we all work together toward a common goal. Let the major stakeholders–ECU, the City of Greenville, and local residents–get together to begin the process in an open and honest manner, putting aside emotion, dishonesty, and selfishness.

    Maury York

  2. JR Rochester says:

    Let me first congratulate on a well written article. I do agree with some of what you said, and disagree with some as well.
    1. I DO NOT agree with the occupancy law. I think that it is ridiculous, in regards to affordable housing that is off campus for students. I do understand the concerns of the renters. Also, I understand the concerns of older adults and families in regards to their neighborhoods. However, If the occupancy law was to be appealed, I would suggest that it be only appealed for the areas that are within direct contact to the university area ie: whatever district zones that cover the houses north of 5th St. to the river. If a rental property has more than 3 bedrooms then it should allow whoever wants to live there to live there, this would provide income for renters who cannot find enough tenants, or “family” tenants to live in the houses closer to a younger and more energetic demographic of Greenville that do not function on a time frame and life plan that settled families do. This will also blend into my next point on landlord restrictions and regulations. .
    2. Speaking from a prospective of a former tenant, I agree that there needs to be regulations in place to keep renters from exploiting students. In one case there was a landlord, that had us sign pre-leases for his apartment building and then when it was time to move in, under wrote the leases and allowed three women to move in to our apartment and kicked a tenant who was upstanding with payments for a year, myself and one other out. That is a different issue that I wanted to shed light on because I assure you that my case was not the only one. What can one do to fix this legally, report said landlord to the better business bureau (which was done) and nothing happened. I agree that their needs to be more enforcement on the landlords to take care of their rentals, and also I could see the point of ensuring their business licenses be awarded, however if they aren’t taxed to have the license. If they own the residence,they (usually) make money on the rental, IT IS THEIR responsibility to keep the house up to code. However, that is not being done in many cases, which are not due to the tenants. Which brings me to another issue that I had while living in this area.
    3. I DEFINITELY 2000% think that changes need to be made to allow owners of historic homes to make changes to these homes to improve the quality of life within them. It will garner more business for the landlords, allow a better living space for tenants, at a more cost effective rate for both. Second issue that has happened on MANY occasions to a plethora of my fellow pirates, when living in a “historic” home near campus, my landlord went before the board (I believe the housing) and had brought pictures of the samples of the windows he wanted to replace that were energy efficient, and in NO WAY looked any different physically from the current windows and was denied, because of some sited historical claim. The denial caused utility bills during the winter months to sky rocket. Also, several of these houses have plaster, mortar, and brick only walls within the home. There is NO insulation, allowing for someone to come in and use the filler foam insulation would also have ensured energy efficiency, wouldn’t be seen (its inside the walls) and would have preserved the walls and the house from air leakage, moisture damage, etc. However, again my former landlord was denied under some sited historical claim. This has got to be changed. I LOVED LIVING there until they wouldn’t allow our landlord to insulate the walls or replace “historic” windows and doors to make the home a more energy efficiency and better place to live. I feel that this would be a wonderful move that would also improve the worth of the homes, preserve the homes, and will make it a more desirable rental for the renters.
    4. Greenville is a college town, it runs effectively with an enormous amount of revenue from the students that enroll at ECU. That means that a younger, more energetic, and less concerned group of individuals will be living in this area, that are mostly temporary. They will come and go during holidays/summer vacation/spring & fall breaks. I agree 100% with the IMPACT team patrols, they do discourage crime in those heavily populated areas where people are social in the morning hours and are usually vacant during specific holiday times. When I lived in the “historic” home we waved to the law enforcement and even spoke to them on a regular basis for a while as they rolled by. It is was encouraging to us to trust our home to be protected when we weren’t in it and when we may walk back from patronizing the downtown area. It is a much needed resolution to prevent damage to property and other crimes. That being said, I do agree that the trash is a problem, however it is not always caused by the tenants in the area. It can be done by passers by or groups that are visiting. I have witnessed it as they trashed our yard for no reason. It is a responsibility issue, in 2 parts, the Landlord should have some responsibility in the area of trash collection. I know that money is tight but I guarantee that students will be less inclined to rent if there isn’t trash already serving the home. It would cause the bags of trash on porches to be collected when they should instead of driven to apartment complexes or even at ECU and dumped in the bins.
    5. I DO NOT and never will agree to forcing fines on people who have interests in music, car modification, fitness and cadence calling or to allowing a clearly biased regulation to a specific demographic be enforced. There are already noise ordinance laws about time and sound.

  3. Hugh Cox says:

    Most Greenville citizens remain astonished that the secretive majority of four members of the city council are determined to enact a “more than three” dwelling code change in the face of overwhelming opposition by citizens who want the “rule of three” to remain as the current city code. Having already discarded public notice of city council issues, the secretive majority will repeatly postpone their secretly committed vote until citizens are tired of attending council meetings. Then one night, the secretive majority will spring their ambush and vote to change the code.
    The political strategy that will work best is to increase the number of citizens who support the “rule of three” and those citizens being prepared to attend each council meeting for months and years to come.
    Citizens must identify those realtors, developers, and landlords financing and supporting the secretive majority to challenge their integrity, honesty and commitment to public service. Citizens proved that they can be victorious against well-financed developers when Mayor Pat Dunn was elected. It can be done again.
    Many thanks to Council Member Marion Blackburn for her crusade of moral courage, openness and exemplary public service.

  4. Dennis Mitchell says:

    Mr. Cox,

    I wonder when you are going to admonish Council members Mercer and Blackburn for voting to add items to agenda, “discarding public notice of council issues” or is it a double standard because you support their issues.

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