When he moved to Raleigh in 1988, says Ted Shear, powering up his slide show, the question of what constitutes a family was much on people's minds, courtesy of Vice President Dan Quayle. The image in dispute then, Shear continues, punching up a slide: TV show character Murphy Brown and her no-dad baby.
But in the Raleigh he's come to know since then, Shear says, punching up the next slide, the real family issue looks like this: Seven fun-lovin' guys drinking beer. Or (next slide): 50 guys, cans in hand, whenever the first seven throw a party at the house they rent in Shear's West Raleigh neighborhood.
The single-family house, that is.
Shear's slides got some laughs when he showed them at a meeting of the City Council's Comprehensive Plan Committee recently, but he wasn't kidding, nor were the other 150 folks who packed City Hall. Student housing is a blight on the neighborhoods around N.C. State University, and they want the city to stop looking the other way about it. Shear teaches in the School of Forestry. He's not anti-student. "The average student at N.C. State is a pretty nice kid," he said. "In my neighborhood, I have the below-average ones."
What he is against, though, are city policies that coddle landlords and pretend that they're renting to families when they're not. "There is such a thing as student housing, and everybody knows it except the city of Raleigh," Shear said.
Specifically, he and other Avent West residents want the city to cut from four to two the number of unrelated people who can live together and be considered a "family" for purposes of the zoning code. As long as the code allows four, investors will keep buying up houses in the older neighborhoods around the university and turning them into de facto rooming houses. Typically, four students will sign the lease for $500 a month each. Then, their "guests' show up for a semester or so and part-ee.
It doesn't help that N.C. State, with 28,000 students, has managed to put just 6,700 dorm beds on campus. "We are sympathetic to the problems," State's Thomas Stafford, the vice chancellor for student affairs, said.
Also sympathetic, City Planning Director George Chapman listed the problems that ensue: Noise, alcohol, drugs, violence, and cars parked all over the place, plus, "just in general, the issue of community decline."
Chapman ticked off a list of "threatened neighborhoods," and it included just about every neighborhood inside the Beltline, west of Boylan Avenue and south of Hillsborough Street, plus University Park and Cameron Park to the north of Hillsborough Street.
Well, said Octavia Rainey, jumping up, "it is so nice to hear the rest of the city complaining about the same problem Southeast Raleigh's had for years." In Southeast, said Rainey, a leading activist there, the number of small houses turned into "three rented rooms" is growing by leaps and bounds. "Prostitutes, drug dealers," Rainey added. "Believe me, they're aren't a family."
But the rentals in Southeast Raleigh have the same effect as student housing in West Raleigh: Once a house or two "turns," nobody else on the block can sell their single-family house to a real family except at fire-sale prices.
Changing the definition of a family is just part of the problem. The landlords of these single-family slums aren't licensed, which means they can't be held to the standards of an official rooming house. And the city's zoning officer, Larry Strickland, has just four field inspectors on his staff. One, Gary Goldberg, told the neighbors they were barking up the wrong tree. "The problem is enforcement," he said. "Just changing the law gives you another law you can't enforce."
Goldberg warned against defining "family" so narrowly that it excludes genuine, but non-traditional families. But Shear had already covered that. Yes, he said, be fair. He showed, on a slide, a book called "Love Makes A Family" with a lesbian couple and their child on the cover. "If Lisa and her two moms want to move in to our neighborhood and replace this 'family'"--he toggled back to the beer-guzzlers--"I'm gonna throw them a welcoming party."