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Rental plan is no weapon, only a PROP

Big complexes water down neighborhood protection effort


As with any difficult problem, you can try to eliminate the cause or just dab something onto the symptoms. Raleigh's proposed PROP--short for Probationary Rental Occupancy Permit--is a weak example of the latter approach to the problem, in this case, of neighborhoods with too many rental houses. As those who've been following this saga for the last two years know, the Raleigh City Council is confronted with a lot of older neighborhoods--many, but not all, near N.C. State University--where small houses have been bought up by investors and turned into rentals. Nothing wrong with rentals per se. But too many of them, with too many tenants (and their cars) jammed in together, equals parking problems, noise, and the kind of generalized decline that hastens the departure of the remaining occupant-homeowners--who then sell out to the very same absentee landlords.

The Neighborhood Preservation Task Force, appointed by the Council to make recommendations on the problem, wanted a licensing program for all absentee landlords, a necessary first step if you ever wanted to limit their numbers, i.e., deal with the cause. No dice--under pressure from the industry (and it is an industry), the council wasn't having it.

Finally, Mayor Charles Meeker and Deputy City Manager Dan Howe cooked up a mild palliative. Their so-called PROP would require only the "bad apples" to get a license, meaning only those landlords who ignored noise or other complaints from neighbors after being cited for a housing code violation by a city inspector --twice. (That's not just a bad apple, it's a stupid one.)

Keep it up, buster, and at some point you could actually lose your PROP for two years. But only on that particular unit, of course.

Even this milquetoast approach failed to win the Council's approval last week, however, after City Attorney Tom McCormick threw a monkey wrench in the works. McCormick warned that, since the Council was only addressing symptoms, not causes, it should apply the PROP not just to single-family conversions and duplexes (the actual source of the problems) but to all rental units in Raleigh that could conceivably come down with bad-apple symptoms.

Otherwise, McCormick said, a lawsuit challenging the PROP on grounds that it unreasonably burdened the "little" rentals while letting the "big" ones off would be tough to beat.

There are, it turns out, 82,000 rental units in Raleigh, most in big apartment complexes, and the big boys don't want any part of the PROP. And, they've got the clout to get out of it, clearly.

After a long public hearing, Meeker--notwithstanding that the PROP was his idea--proposed limiting it to apartment complexes of 20 units or less. That won him the vote of arch-conservative Mike Regan, surprisingly, but it lost the support--at least temporarily--of Councilor James West, who said that some of the worst problems in his Southeast Raleigh district are in the big complexes. Councilor Jessie Taliaferro, meanwhile, wasn't committing to anything, putting her, at least for the moment, in league with Republicans Philip Isley and Neal Hunt.

Councilors Janet Cowell and Thomas Crowder back the PROP, though both consider it a watered-down compromise at best.

Stay tuned. The debate resumes next Tuesday, Sept. 21.

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