Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Friday, January 26, 2007

University Impact Report and Inspections

The City, the University of Minnesota and the neighborhoods surrounding the Minneapolis U campus (Marcy Holmes, Como, Prospect Park and Cedar Riverside) have been collaborating on a “University Impact Report,” which is to be returned to the Legislature in February. You can find the report here:

I was delighted that the Council unanimously approved today. I wholeheartedly support this report and its recommendations, have followed it closely, and have been pushing for this well before it was passed by the state legislature. I will continue to do what I can to take advantage of this unique opportunity to build a better partnership between the City, the University and the surrounding neighborhoods. It offers a clear path for addressing some of the most pressing concerns the neighborhood is facing. Among those concerns is the issue of owner occupied housing being converted to rental property.

As a result of this report, and shortly following its passage, I plan to move forward on two related initiatives.

First, I am going to actively explore a moratorium on rental housing conversions. Initial discussions indicate that the City may not have legal authority to impose such a moratorium. However, the Impact Report, the current attention of the Legislature and the potential new University Area District may provide the necessary leverage to gain this authority. I will take the next steps in the next several weeks, reviewing the possibilities and options with the City attorney’s office, Zoning and Planning and Intergovernmental Relations staff.

The Impact Report also, in part, prompted Regulatory Services to move forward with plans to inspect all of the rental housing in the neighborhoods surrounding campus.

I believe that this is a good idea – as the report makes clear, many rental dwellings in U neighborhoods are substandard, some of them to the point of endangering their tenants. I believe it’s important to reverse the slide in housing quality, for the safety of tenants and the livability and sustainability of our neighborhoods.

Some things that I think are important regarding the upcoming inspections include:

1) That those who are likely to be impacted be informed and engaged prior to the inspections and that the community understands what will be inspected beforehand.
2) That we identify possible resources to help residents and owners (especially those of limited means) make needed improvements both before and after inspections.

The proposed inspections have also caused me to decide that it is time to revisit the way the city views and regulates maximum occupancy. I have been concerned about the Minneapolis zoning code on maximum occupancy for some time. I made this an issue in the 2005 campaign. My concern is that the proposed inspections will have the same disruptive, negative impact on students sharing housing near the University as the inspections sweep of 2003.

Minneapolis has two different maximum occupancy codes, which produce different numbers of occupants allowed in many dwelling units in the City. 244.810 is the Housing Maintenance code, which exists to protect the health and safety of residents (in conjunction with the rest of the Housing Maintenance code). 546.50 is the Zoning code, which exists to regulate density. 546.50 is the code that led students to be evicted from their housing during the 2003 sweep.

244.810 establishes the number of people who can safely cohabitate by the “habitable square footage” of the dwelling. This is further limited by other provisions describing “habitable” space (such as when basements can and cannot be considered habitable), requirements for bedrooms (for example, any room that people must cross to use a common restroom cannot be considered a bedroom), minimum sizes of both bedrooms and common spaces, etc.

546.50 establishes the number of people who can legally cohabitate by what zone the dwelling is in, and whether the residents are related to each other. In R1-R3 (low density) zones, you can have 3 unrelated persons living together in a unit, no matter its size. In R4-R6 (high density) zones, you can have 5 unrelated persons living together in a unit, again no matter its size. Thus, an 18-room mansion zoned R1 near Lake Harriet can legally hold only 3 unrelated people, whereas a studio apartment in Cedar Riverside zoned R4 can legally hold 5 people, related or not (according to 546.50).

I should note that the code does also establish a maximum limit of five for even related persons sharing housing. Thus, my household of six family members is currently violating the letter of 546.50, as are many other families throughout the City. However, few would suggest that the City enforce this ordinance against families like mine, as similar provisions have been struck down by the Supreme Court. This partial unenforceability is another serious flaw with the (546.50) ordinance.

I believe that 244.810 is a more appropriate template for a maximum occupancy ordinance than 546.50, and I am planning to try to make the two codes more consistent. My principal concern is the safety and health of tenants. I do not believe that we should decide on the maximum occupancy of a given dwelling unit based on the “relatedness” of its residents. I have had preliminary discussions with Regulatory Services staff, and they have said they have the capacity to enforce 244.810.

In the next few weeks I plan to gather a group of community members and stakeholders to help find a way to improve the codes to regulate maximum occupancy that puts a priority on health and safety, takes into consideration the livability concerns raised by many residents and does not discriminate against unrelated adults sharing housing, GLBT couples, students and the poor. It will be important to have different view points represented in this group so that we can work to find a consensus solution that works for everyone. If you are willing and interested in participating please let me know.


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