City law related to rental housing will be reviewed

City law related to rental housing will be reviewed by David Lias Should more than four unrelated people be able to rent a home in Vermillion?

That's a question that the Vermillion City Council will have to come to grips with after a property owner appealed the results of a recent inspection of his rental homes by the city's code enforcement department.

Ron Shea, owner of rental houses located at 20 Prospect and 115 Prospect, appealed the improvement requests for code violations and overcrowding conditions identified recently by the city's rental housing inspector.

Shea in particular is objecting to 115 Prospect as being termed "overcrowded" because more than four unrelated people are living in the home.

City ordinance prohibits landlords from renting houses to more than four unrelated people.

"The unit is not an overcrowded rental unit," Shea wrote in a letter to Farrel Christensen, the city's code enforcement officer. "I understand it may be technically in violation of the no more than four unrelated persons rule, but it is not overcrowded."

Shea noted that 115 Prospect is a large home. It contains six bedrooms, a large kitchen and dining area, a large living room, an entryway with a closet, an enclosed front porch, one full bath, two 1 3/4 baths, a basement rec room, a laundry room with washer and dryer provided, a deck, and off-street parking for six individuals.

Shea noted that he and his wife have made a substantial investment in the home. They've removed old carpet, refinished wooden floors, stripped and repainted the exterior, and repainted the interior. The house has a new stove, a new furnace and a new air conditioner.

Old cast iron sewer pipes and lead or galvanized water pipes have also been replaced.

The Sheas purchased the home in November 1997. Three of their six children attended USD and lived in the two houses the family owns in Vermillion.

This year marks the first time that 115 Prospect has been cited for having more than four unrelated tenants. "Since owning the home, nearly 100 percent of the tenants have been student athletes," Shea wrote in his letter.

"During the entire time we have owned and rented the home, I am unaware of any complaints made by any neighbors or anyone else for that matter. The fact that 115 may be occupied by more than four unrelated persons does not affect the health, safety or welfare of the residents living there, the neighbors or anyone else in the community."

One reason Shea is appealing the city's findings, he told the council Monday, is to prevent the forced eviction of two of his tenants. He also explained that it wouldn't be cost-effective to lease a larger home such as 115 Prospect to fewer

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than six people.

Mayor Roger Kozak noted that the city council decided recently to add a staff member to the code enforcement department. "I would say since that time we have found not only violations such as this, we have discovered numerous rental properties that we were totally unaware of in the past.

"I would say that this community has had some rental properties that I probably wouldn't want my pets to live in," he added. "We have condemned some properties; we have taken property owners to court. Things are different."

Kozak told Shea he wasn't trying to be critical of his property. Many of the recent violations found by code enforcement have revealed inadequate housing standards. The city's tougher enforcement policies, he said, are meant to protect renters.

"If they purchased the property in November of 1997, and if the city's rental housing program says dwelling units are inspected about every two years, this should have been inspected at least twice then," Aldermen Jack Powell said. "I'm guess I'm kind of surprised that it's just now that we're finding out that we have this kind of problem."

"We do include on all our rental housing information that acts or omissions do not constitute authority to break the ordinance," Christensen said. "We're not perfect; we went through a number of inspectors in that late 1990s period before we got a full-time inspector on board. I can't defend our omissions, but I can explain why they happened and hope they don't happen again."

Shea sought to have the city grant a variance to allow six individuals to continue residing at 115 Prospect.

City Attorney Jim McCullough noted, however, that his review of rental housing codes reveals limits on the reasons that variances can be granted.

"It has to be something very unique to that property," he said.

Shea's request, Christensen said, is not so much for a variance as it is for a total breaking of the housing ordinance.

"We've got a limit of four, they'd like to put in six, and I think there is some very specific language there that really addresses the inability to do that," Christensen said.

McCullough did find a section of city code that makes reference to board of housing appeals. "It says that the board may authorize, upon appeal in specific cases, such variance from the terms of the housing code ? as would not adversely affect public health and where only exceptional and extraordinary circumstances, literal enforcement of applicable provisions will result in unnecessary hardship to the owner or occupant."

McCullough said that granting a variance based on the economic burden it would place on Shea would allow every other rental investor in the city to pursue a similar ruling to allow more than four unrelated people in their houses.

"If there is going to be some flexibility granted, such as giving a longer period of time in order to deal with the problem," McCullough said, "and then perhaps during that period of time examining that four person requirement. If there is some determination that you would like to start allowing more than four unrelated people under certain criteria ? if you wanted to do that, you also would want to make sure you are following square footage requirements."

McCullough said city law states that rulings regarding appeals for rental housing allow enforcement to be held in abeyance, in other words put on hold, until a final decision is reached by the city council.

Aldermen agreed Monday to do just that regarding the four resident rule at 115 Prospect until it gets more information on options to consider.

The city's staff and Policy and Procedure Committee likely will examine the Vermillion's rental housing regulations, and make a recommendation at the next city council meeting.

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