The Greenville Guardian Actual journalism, virtually delivered

Thoughts on the UNRI Repeal

By Jerry Weitz
Member, Greenville Planning and Zoning Commission

I am speaking in advance of Tuesday’s (March 18, 2014) public hearings. I’m writing about two ordinances initiated by Greenville City Council for consideration by the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z).

One proposal would repeal the four-unrelated provision inserted via zoning overlay district applying to the University Neighborhood and return it to a maximum of three unrelated persons, as has been the citywide standard since about 1981.

The second ordinance proposed would eliminate altogether the zoning ordinance overlay established for the University Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (UNRI), eliminating not just the four-unrelated rule change but the framework which established the entire “initiative” in 2012 by then Council member Max Joyner.

op-ed

I speak in advance because one would anticipate a lot of speakers at P&Z’s public hearing and it may be difficult given time constraints for the P&Z to consider solutions in addition to voting on the two ordinance proposals. I also want to go on record with an idea or two and some of my positions ahead of time.

ACKNOWLEDGE AN EQUITY PROBLEM

There is an “inequity” problem that the approved four-unrelated rule proposed to mitigate. The inequity is citywide, not just in the UNRI zoning overlay district.  The inequity is that not all houses are the same size.  There are some houses in the UNRI zoning overlay that are larger than 2,000 square feet. Owners of larger homes, say 2,000 square feet or more, were penalized by the prior three-unrelated occupancy limitation.

If you own, say, a 2,500 square foot house and need to rent it, is it fair to you to limit your marketing options? Homeowner families are in relatively short supply in Greenville, statistics show. It is not right to arbitrarily limit occupancy to three unrelated persons if you have a house with more than three bedrooms and/or with space in the range of 2,000 square feet or more.

The UNRI zoning change (“four-unrelated”) did not solve this inequity – it does not apply citywide. But within the UNRI zoning overlay, it did tend to mitigate this problem for a relative few number of property owners, those with the larger (2,000 square feet or more) homes.

THE EQUAL PROTECTION ISSUE

Having written zoning ordinances for many communities in the past, I’ve been concerned about treating unrelated individuals differently from a family. That is, it is fundamentally “suspect” to me to not treat unrelated individuals the same as families (related by blood or marriage). That was my thought going into debates about the UNRI.

Knowing the neighborhood (UNRI) much better now, and hearing the problems and issues associated with that neighborhood, I’ve pretty much changed my mind – there are some overwhelming public welfare/neighborhood livability issues that are unique to the neighborhood and/or at least college towns more generally that would suggest there is some good reason to treat unrelated households differently from families.

I’d like better evidence that there are discernible differences that justify treating families and households comprised of unrelated individuals differently in terms of the maximum number per single-family home. We don’t have such evidence readily available, but I think it could be found or constructed: not all of these are measurable in terms of external impacts such as parking, noise, and trash accumulation.  Some justifications I believe relate to tenure – whether one owns or rents.

For many years, the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctioned treating unrelated households differently from families (see Village of Belle Terre v. Borass, 1974). Even with that decision, however, the issue of equal protection under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution remains in all such applications of local land-use regulations.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE GOOD WORK DONE SO FAR

I believe in acknowledging credit where it is due. The UNRI initiative did have some discernible benefits. There is productive work that has come out of UNRI: especially the task force which deliberated for more than one year and addressed some of the issues, most notably parking on streets and in back yards. I leave it to each citizen to read their report, and to also acknowledge and thank the individuals sitting on the task force and staff and others who worked with the task force.

I want to emphasize one (and #1 on the list) of the task force’s recommendations: pursue a so-called renter conversion program to homeownership units, in addition to maintaining funding for the current University Neighborhood Homeowner Downpayment Assistance Program. I highlight that first recommendation of the task force because it means the task force clearly recognized the importance of home ownership in the neighborhood.

ACKNOWLEDGE WHY THE UNRI LED TO PUBLIC OUTCRY

Many will remember, but for those that don’t, take a look at the initial 2012 planning staff report which is a part of the 234-page P&Z package for this Tuesday’s public hearings (3/18/14). That report indicates that 79 percent [of those taking part in the survey in 2012 administered by city staff] opposed a change to the then-current three-unrelated rule.

It is well known that various boards and commissions including P&Z (and including my own negative vote) deliberated against the UNRI initiative. I commented publicly at the time that I believed approval by Council of four-unrelated would be a literal low point for democracy in Greenville. Many if not most would agree the purpose of the overlay district was in effect to give special interest treatment to landlords. I object to such special interest regulation, as do many others in Greenville. And that the UNRI was dictated by special interests of rental landlords is reason enough for me to support the repeal of UNRI and/or elimination of the four-unrelated provision.

———————————————–
A 3,000-plus word op-ed in that other paper?
Hmmm… not so much.
Click here to support the Guardian – and the free exchange of ideas.
———————————————–

There were efforts by proponents of UNRI to “sell” the concept as a way to revitalize the neighborhood, infusing dollars into the city as a result of building improvements. I’ve yet to see this proved – and I’d like to ask the Greenville city staff if they have calculated and publicly shared the dollar value of new construction that has resulted from the 49 or 54 zoning permits issued so far for the property owners who have been issued four-unrelated permits. I don’t believe the $5.5 million number (or whatever it is) that some are throwing out there, and which is not in the planning staff’s report.

I also look skeptically on claims that any reduction in crime in the neighborhood that may have occurred can be uniquely attributed to the UNRI. Speaking as an academic, I don’t think the best study designers could really even execute a study that isolates those impacts as separate from other possible intervening actions, such as a better crime control program that might have been initiated by the Police Department.

ISN’T IT ALL ABOUT HOME OWNERSHIP?

Although I am not a neighborhood planning expert, I’m a professional city planner with 29 years of experience. If it was clear what the best approach to revitalize the neighborhood was, then we would quickly garner consensus around pursuing that approach. Many if not most recognize that home ownership is one of the keys, if not the key.  I happen to think that the low level of home ownership (15 percent or so) in UNRI is the largest problem – and I would like to see more of Andrew Morehead’s collection of empirical, peer-reviewed studies that (as I recall) show homeownership is highly associated with a reduction in crime rates.

Note that the TRUNA neighborhood study and plan completed by the city emphasized homeownership, and now the UNRI task force’s report recognizes its importance – and as the first recommendation suggests a rental conversion program to homeownership in addition to maintaining the city’s current program of homeowner downpayment assistance in the College View area.

This is another reason for my opposition to the UNRI, and why I support its repeal – it ignored an adopted plan calling for the city to increase homeownership in the neighborhood.  If you don’t like the plan, it should be changed, in a public process. It doesn’t matter that there are only 15 percent of single-family property owners remaining in the neighborhood. We shouldn’t give up on homeownership, and we should do more to promote it, because in my view it is an increase in homeownership that is the best medicine for any neighborhood of the sort like College View. As a planner I cannot back my contention up with studies, it is only my professional opinion. Again, I hope that the empirical studies Andrew Morehead found and shared previously during the debate can be aired again.

One of the most important considerations of P&Z and Council members when considering a zoning map or zoning text change is whether the proposal is consistent with the comprehensive plan and any related plans such as in this case, the TRUNA neighborhood report and plan. In my view, because UNRI incentivized conversion of owner-occupied dwellings to rental and encouraged changes to accommodate more people in existing rental homes, it was and still is inconsistent with the policy and programs of the city aimed at encouraging homeownership in College View.

TWO OPTIONS – WHICH IS BEST?

Council (staff with direction) gave P&Z two ordinance proposals to consider. I sat through the entire agenda item in council chambers when these were voted upon by Council. The first one retains the overlay district but repeals the 4-unrelated provision and sends it back to three-unrelated, the same as that which applies citywide. Since that option would effectuate the repeal of four-unrelated, I support that objective.

The second alternative – initiated by Council member Kandie Smith (who initially supported UNRI) was in my view borne out of simple frustration. She suggested why not repeal the entire UNRI overlay district and take it off the zoning map (hence the unusual second ordinance proposal to simultaneously consider). Do this, she suggested, because she didn’t believe it was right to “cherry pick” good things from the UNRI (to the extent one acknowledges good things), and throw out four-unrelated only.

I have to question motives and the sincerity of this motion. Would Council members Smith and Glover vote for this again, when it really counts? Or is it a ploy to set up the UNRI repeal for failure with a protest petition, which can be exercised on the ordinance repealing the UNRI zoning overlay (because it is a zoning map decision that is subject to the state law protest petition provisions).

And, I have to wonder, sitting in the council chambers audience and seeing Dennis Mitchell with a computer (which might have enabled him to “ex parte” contact one or more council members during the council meeting), if Mr. Mitchell had any influence over Ms. Smith’s vote to initiate an altogether repeal of the UNRI overlay.

I reserve my final decision until voting day, Tuesday March 18th at P&Z, but I tend to favor the outright repeal of the UNRI overlay district. But I still think a P&Z member can support both ordinances initiated by Council because both would repeal four-unrelated. Despite the fact that only one can go into effect (if council approves), they both accomplish the objective of repealing four-unrelated. The issue sort of boils down to whether we need to retain the zoning overlay.

On that question, I have mixed opinions – there is no inherent need for the overlay if the special privilege four-unrelated rule goes away.  On the other hand, the overlay doesn’t really do any immediate, discernible “damage” if retained, it would seem. And who is to say it has to be option 1 or option 2 but not both? After all, council gave P&Z both, and P&Z could consider a positive recommendation on both ordinance proposals and then let Council decide which one is best.

The only other “regulation” that is tied to the overlay district, if the four-unrelated rule is repealed but the UNRI zoning overlay is retained, is the rear yard parking provisions. I think it would be easy for staff to re-impose those back-yard parking regulations (which the UNRI task force recommended and which I supported on P&Z) – perhaps to the city as a whole?  In other words, if they are good for College View, they might be presumptively appropriate (if less necessary) elsewhere in the city.

A BETTER, MORE EQUITABLE MEASURE

I support repeal of four-unrelated but I also think we should try and deal with the inequity issue I described earlier.

I have Calvin Mercer’s statement in the back of my mind: he said in a newsletter, “let’s get it right this time.” I also believe a majority of council wants to address the issue fully, so long as it is done with due process including much participation from property owners, residents of all types, other citizens, and neighborhood representatives.

Either of the two ordinances repealing four-unrelated, if approved, will reverse the city council’s undemocratic 2012 decision, which was contrary to an adopted neighborhood plan – and, it seems, was designed to serve rental landlord interests more than the city’s overall interests. But repealing four-unrelated without another solution being presented will leave critics of that decision to suggest that the repeal didn’t solve the problem and that if the city is to repeal four-unrelated it should come up with something better.

There is a better approach, in my view, one that will admittedly be unpopular to the renter landlords. I propose that in some form UNRI get replaced with a set of citywide Livable Neighborhood Standards. There are two measures of regulatory approach that I would consider in place of the flat, inequitable limit on three unrelated individuals living together, regardless of the size of single-family housing unit. These would apply to single-family dwelling neighborhoods such as the R-6S zoning category (what most of College View is currently zoned), and they might be modified for others.

The first is a square-footage occupancy provision. Instead of limiting every house to an arbitrary number of occupants, the key and most equitable variable to base regulation on is square foot per person, or more appropriately, square feet per adult person. I realize that almost no other city that city planning staff surveyed in their 2012 report on three-unrelated (part of P&Z’s agenda package Tuesday night) made use of such a provision. But I believe, again, it is more equitable. And it is listed in the city’s 2012 report as a possible option to consider, though it hasn’t gained any traction to date. I would also point out that the 2012 survey about three-unrelated also asked about this question of square feet per occupant, and feedback was provided by the public that could be further consulted.

What should the square footage per person be? Note first that there is an inherent standard adopted in the four-unrelated ordinance. By requiring 1,500 square feet to accommodate four unrelated individuals in one single-family home, that equates with an implicit standard of one unrelated resident for every 375 square feet. This may be adequate to meet public health requirements – my research of codes suggests that public health is not necessarily diminished until or unless occupancy exceeds one person per 150 or 165 square feet of floor space.

Yet, it is not just about health – it is about acceptable benchmarks for livability.  As applied to the College View neighborhood, I believe that 1 unrelated occupant for each 375 square feet is too low a standard for the type of “livability” we should promote in Greenville’s single-family neighborhoods, including College View.  And remember, College View is predominantly a neighborhood of single-family dwellings, even if it is close to 85 percent rental.

I don’t have the definitive answer, and I’d like to study it further, but it seems to me the minimum livability standard for occupancy should be at least 500 square feet per adult occupant of a detached, single-family dwelling. I favor a higher number, such as 667 square feet or more. Notice I suggest adult occupant, not any occupant. By tying a standard to adults, one would not penalize households with children from occupying the smaller houses in College View. To me, and I realize I may be privileged, 500 square feet per adult person is the minimum comfort level. For comparison, note that most people’s office spaces/work stations are only about 150 square feet.

So, on what basis can we arrive at an acceptable number?

Consider that a housing unit for one person rarely is built with less than 550 square feet, at least in my experience with zoning code writing.  Consider further that in 1985 the average square foot per person in a home was 740, and in 2005, it was 916 (Source: RSMeans Data Online, www.engineeringtoolbox.com).

In 1950, that same figure was 292 square feet per person average in a home.  The national median space per person in a home in 2009 was about 800 (Source: National Association of Home Builders). In central cities, the median was recently reported as 667 square feet per person.  Remember, these statistics I cite here are per person, not per adult person. Further, these statistics include multi-family units, not just single-family homes. I would make the case that for single-family neighborhoods, the benchmark should be even higher than the overall averages or medians cited here.

What would the implication be for College View? If applied to all homes, adoption of an occupancy standard of 500 square feet or more per adult occupant would make some existing occupancies illegal, for example, three unrelated residents in a 1,400 square foot home. I realize that is not going to be viewed with acceptance by rental landlords in College View. But again, College View is dominated by single-family detached dwellings.

One could set a lower livability standard, like 375 or so (the current de facto standard), for apartment district occupancies. Having such a standard would, I believe, incentivize homeownership. And if occupants want greater sharing of smaller spaces, then they have the option to move to apartment zones. There is no reason to suggest a neighborhood of detached, one-household homes cannot or should not be treated any differently from other neighborhoods of the same type in the city. Or, at least the current rationale for treating College View differently is not on as strong a legal foundation as I would like.

Finally, I might suggest a consideration of a minimum bathroom standard to go along with the square footage per person standard I propose above. This, too, was broached in prior discussions but didn’t gain traction.  I haven’t given this as much thought, but I do think part of the occupancy “issue” in College View is having four unrelated individuals (or family members for that matter) sharing a single bathroom. I would be in favor of further exploring a second neighborhood livability (occupancy) standard such that three or more adults would require at least 1.5 baths.

Again, I recognize my probably “privileged” view in this regard. I don’t see why these neighborhood livability standards (minimum bathroom and minimum square feet per adult occupant) if pursued, would need to be limited to unrelated households only; they could apply to all single-family homes in the city via zoning district.

I can only wish my thoughts gain enough traction that P&Z could discuss them as a possible action, in addition to recommending one or both of the two ordinance proposals on the agenda relative to UNRI. Or, at least, that my thoughts gain traction by the time Council votes on matters.

Both the P&Z and City Council can vote to initiate changes. These proposals would surely require more vetting and refinement, and vociferous opposition would be anticipated.

In addition to his membership on P&Z and work as a professional city planner, Weitz is editor of Practicing Planner and directs the Urban and Regional Planning Program at East Carolina University.

Responses (4)

  1. Dennis Mitchell says:

    Your [op-ed] is overshadowed by your false accusations which hold no merit and I am shocked that you would be allowed to write such baseless statements. Why do you feel a 3 term incumbent can be influenced by a 1 term former council member? I think it is much more deep-seeded than that and somehow in your academic mind, you don’t believe an African American woman is capable of thinking and having her own point of view. Since you are all up in my business and wondering what I was doing, it was homework that was due that night for a class. Yes- black people use a computer for more than social interaction. Your statements are ignorant and have racial overtones that deserved to be called out.

    • Jerry Weitz says:

      Dennis, my apologies. It was phrased as a question and not an accusation or statement, but I guess you could view both as more or less the same. I won’t go into an explanation here of why I raised the question, except to say it has to do with procedures, and I’ll admit some lack of discretion in including that comment in my writing.

      You are a better man than I, being able to do homework in an environment of a contentious council meeting. Kandie has proven in her statements time after time she is an independent thinker; I do not share the view you ascribe to me; No racial prejudice was intended, and I apologize again if my statement could even remotely be taken that way. JW

  2. Dennis Mitchell says:

    Thank you for your apology. I too apologize if I incorrectly characterized your questioning. Being a Black elected official, it seems like any time your point of view is different from someone else, the first inclination is to assume that someone has influenced you in some way. This would probably be considered this very offensive to any educated person, and perhaps I misdirected my feelings by reading more into your statement. So, again, my apologies. While I disagree with a lot of what you said, some points I can agree with.

  3. Vince Bellis says:

    Enough of the catcalling. Let’s see some substantive comments about, and discussion of, the Weitz proposal(s)!

Join the discussion! To promote civility and the useful exchange of ideas, we moderate comments and require full names (first and last), and a valid email address (used solely for verification). If you have an issue posting, please describe it and paste any error message you receive in the body of an email. Send to: tonyn@greenvilleguardian.org. Thanks for your participation!

%d bloggers like this: