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Will Raleigh ever "deal" with its student housing woes?



We return, after our summer sojourn, to find North Carolina matters about where we left them. Johnny Edwards is still wandering in the desert of presidential politicking. Mike Easley has come out boldly for "Andy Griffith." And the Wake Republicans, unaccustomed as they are to actually running anything, are upset that the schools cost money--they didn't sign up for that when they got elected county commissioners!

And in Raleigh, city officials continue to flail away at the issue of student housing in older neighborhoods, now calcified as the Neighborhood Preservation Task Force. We dropped in last week as the (Has No) Force heard from an expert--a guy with a briefcase from out of town--and found a working majority of the City Council there to listen. Mayor Charles Meeker and Councilors Janet Cowell, Neal Hunt and James West were in the audience. At the head of table was Councilor Benson Kirkman, whose District D is the one under direct fire from N.C. State.

Kirkman, reminding us he is council liaison to the (Alleged) Force, said it would be making "some serious proposals" in about a month. Council elections are in six weeks, so we're not holding our breath.

The expert, Eric Kelly, a city planner and Ball State University prof who specializes in this issue of how to keep Behemoth U. from despoiling the neighborhoods around it, had one useful thing to say. If nothing in his presentation was new, he began, "Then you just gotta deal." Meaning, if you already know what to do, why aren't you doing it?

Nothing Kelly went on to say was new, but there were some choice moments. Ames, Iowa (population: 50,700), home to the University of Iowa, has a staff of six inspectors assigned exclusively to the housing beat, Kelly said, enforcing strict standards of maintenance and conduct. "Raleigh's housing code is very limited," he added dryly.

It brought to mind something Meeker said when he ran in 1999. Outgoing Mayor Tom Fetzer had starved city agencies, Meeker complained. Why, there were only four people in the whole inspections department doing everything from housing to store signs!

Up at the table, Raleigh inspections chief Larry Strickland was asked how many people he had now. Four, Strickland answered. For a city of 350,000. But hey, Meeker wasn't elected in '99. It took him until '01. So it's not like he hasn't done anything for four years. Just two.

Earlier, Kelly'd heard from N.C. State junior Meagan Langdon, a (So-Called) Force member, that the going rate for student housing is down this year to around $300 a room. What? That's amazingly low, he said. Now he knew why. "You're not paying the full cost of that rental unit," Kelly told her. "Your neighbors are paying part of it in lost property values" from the slummy conditions the city is tolerating around them.

That's it in a nutshell. That's why the Avent West neighborhood is up in arms, and why last year they were pushing for the city to change the definition of "family" for zoning purposes so that no more than two unrelated people--down from four--could rent a house or half of a duplex together. It's a big reason architect Thomas Crowder, a planning commission member who lives in Avent West, jumped into the District D race against Kirkman.

Langdon, by the way, lives in an apartment complex, not a rental house. Good, Kelly said. Apartments were designed for tenants--and their cars--and have professional property management. They're not the problem. The problem is "amateurs" who've watched the late-night infomercials and read the books ("Dormitory Dollars" is his particular bete noir) about how to buy a little house near Behemoth U. for $100,000 and rent it to four students for $450 a month each.

Hefty profits await you, Kelly said. That is, unless the unexpected happens, and your city doesn't step in--it was only reasonable to assume it would--to stop the stampede before it gets out of hand. When the city doesn't act, a glut in the market may result and the price-per-student sag. This year, add in the spiffy new Wolf Creek apartment complex, just $540 a month for all the amenities the modern State student desires, and that $450 a month you were hoping for starts dropping.

No wonder the "Dormitory Dollars" crowd is screaming at the idea that they might have to have a parking space, and a bedroom, for every paying customer. Kelly's do-list: License rental houses. Use the fees to pay inspectors. Require parking spaces, and not all on the front lawn. (Curbs help.) If the neighborhood asks, put a limit on the number of rental houses per block. Distinguish between houses that are being used for tenants and those rented only until Aunt Tilly's estate is settled.

It's not complicated. You just gotta deal.

Let Johnny Run.
There is no reason whatever why Sen. Edwards can't run for president in the early caucus and primary states and, if he doesn't get anywhere, come back and run for re-election to the Senate. Next March will be time enough for Erkine Bowles and Dan Blue to start running if Edwards stays in the presidential race, or for Edwards to start a Senate campaign if he doesn't. EndBlock

If there's a chair of the (So-Called) Force, contact Bob Geary at rjgeary@aol.com or 412-5051.

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