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Meeker pushing licensing 'lite' for rental homes

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How do the members of Raleigh's Neighborhood Preservation and Housing Task Force feel about Mayor Charles Meeker's proposal for "targeted licensing" (or, "licensing lite") of absentee landlords?

Elizabeth Byrd, a task force leader from the Avent West community, says she agrees with the note she got from a neighbor. "What is this? I don't understand," the note said. Byrd thought another note captured the essence of the plan: "It's kind of like being stopped for drunk driving, being given 24 hours to sober up, and if you're still drunk, then you have to get a driver's license."

Perhaps we should add, Byrd is a Meeker supporter, as are most of the task force members. Ah, well.

Remember the issue: Older Raleigh neighborhoods, especially the ones near N.C. State University, are deteriorating as single-family houses get bought by absentee landlords who turn them into rentals for the permitted four tenants--often students. One rental house? Not a problem. A string of rental houses on the block? Problems. Noise, trash, parking, and--soon--the only market for your single-family house in the neighborhood is as a rental, which doesn't help its value.

The city appointed the task force after an early neighborhoods initiative failed to cut from four to two the number of allowable tenants. The task force came up with two key recommendations: (1) Treat rental houses like the business they are, require the owners to obtain a business license, and use the license fees to pay for stepped-up city inspections; and (2) Allow neighborhoods to adopt "overlay zoning" plans limiting the number of such businesses to 20 percent of the total number of single-family and duplex housing units.

(Apartment buildings--already covered by their own set of rules--were never involved.)

Six month later, the licensing idea has gone nowhere. That's because a majority of the City Council is listening to the rental industry (and it is an industry--the city "guesstimates" that there are 10,000 single-family rental houses and duplexes in Raleigh, though of course it doesn't really know, because it doesn't license them). The industry argues that there is no systemic problem, only a few "bad apples" who don't take care of their property. Don't penalize everybody--by making us all buy licenses--when most of us are pure, it says.

Meeker's idea is to split the difference while establishing the principle of licensing, and rules that would cause a problem owner to lose his license for repeated violations of city codes. Hence, only violators would be required to have licenses. But if the violations continue, the city would strip the license, meaning the house could not be rented--unless the owner lived in it, too--for a year.

"They say it's just a few bad owners," Meeker says. "So, OK, we target the bad ones."

However, when the mayor's idea was translated by city staff into a "text change" to the housing ordinance, what came out was heavy on the exceptions and light on the rules, Byrd thinks.

Not cutting the grass? That's not a violation unless, after a warning, you still haven't cut it 10 days later. Noisy parties? Trash in the yard? According to City Manager Dan Howe, the general rule would be "lose your license only after repeated violations and a lack of response." How many violations? Howe wrote in a "three-strikes" rule--three violations in a 24-month period--though he acknowledges that, given how easily a violation could be avoided, a "one-strike rule" might be fair. "Nobody here wants to stop people from renting their property, although that would be the ultimate penalty," Howe says.

Actually, though, the whole point of the task force report was to stop rental conversions beyond the 20 percent break-point, which wouldn't stop people from renting their houses temporarily, but would stop them from doing so permanently. But without a general licensing requirement, counting the number of rentals per neighborhood isn't possible, which means that limiting them isn't either.

The logic of the 20 percent cap, according to the task force report, is illustrated by the biggest problem of all: parking. Houses in older neighborhoods typically don't have garages, and many have one-car driveways. If most of the houses are family-owned, with two or three cars, one can go in the driveway and the other two on the street. And if a rental house has four cars or more there for an evening, they can go on the street somewhere too. But once the number of rental houses proliferates beyond the neighborhood's capacity for parking, the only place to put the extra cars is on the front yard--and in many Raleigh neighborhoods, that's where they are.

Similarly, noise. The issue in older neighborhoods isn't usually one noisy rental, it's a lot of not-so-noisy rentals strung together.

"Where is the neighborhood preservation in all of this?" Byrd asks. "Is the goal of this city to protect the communities that create it, or to protect the people in the business of renting property?" l

A public hearing is scheduled at Raleigh City Council on July 6. For information about the task force, write nphtfsupport@earthlink.net.

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