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Truth in zoning 

If you've read the Indy's Peter Eichenberger ("The Knock on the Door," Jan. 8), you understand the proposal before the Raleigh City Council that would limit the number of unrelated tenants on a lease to be an attack on poor folks. On the other hand, you may have read a less-agitated article of mine ("All in the Family," Oct. 9) that portrayed it as an effort to protect Raleigh's older, most affordable neighborhoods from predatory investors and rooming-house creep.

Hey, just like Fox News, we report, you decide. Whatever it is, the early skirmishing about it is over and the battle lines are drawn for the public hearing, which is set for Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall. Don't miss it.

The proposed ordinance change would drop from four to two the number of unrelated people who can live in a house zoned for single-family or duplex use. It has nothing to do with how many people can lease an apartment. It has nothing to do with how many people can live in a rooming house. But it does limit the number of people who can legally rent a single-family house when they aren't a single family by blood ("to the third degree lineally"), marriage, adoption or guardianship ("or the fourth degree collaterally"); or in foster care ("a family may include five or few foster children ... ").

If you don't know your third-degree from your fourth, and you wonder how Raleigh zoning officer Larry Strickland is going to tell if the tenants are the one, the other, or aliens from a planet where they consume mass quantities of alcoholic beverages, you're not alone. Strickland hasn't had much luck enforcing the current limit of four unrelated tenants, and when he was asked at a recent forum how the lower limit of two would improve things, his first response was to shrug.

But Planning Commission member Thomas Crowder thinks it will help by changing the math for real estate speculators and their bankers. Especially since the stock market tanked three years ago, investors have stepped up their purchases of the smallest, least expensive houses in Raleigh, Crowder says. Predominantly, these houses are in the old neighborhoods near N.C. State or else in Southeast Raleigh. Though they're zoned for single-family use, the buyers have no intention of living in them or renting them to a family. Instead, they rent them to four students or four adults, turning them into de facto rooming houses.

The result? Crowder calls it "inner-ring decay" as transients replace families and homeowners find themselves unable to sell their houses except to the speculators.

Changing the rule won't do anything to stop the situation that Brentwood neighborhood leader Bruce Spader described: The owner of a Mexican restaurant had as many as 26 of his employees living in an 1,800-square-foot house around the corner from him; it took Spader, and Strickland, a year to get the goods on him and force him to sell the house.

What it will do, its proponents think, is discourage real estate investors who aren't planning to break the law from undermining older neighborhoods. And if they want to turn a single-family residence into a rooming house, they could still do so, of course. They'd just have to call it that and get a license. Says Crowder: "It's truth-in-zoning, that's all."

(Editor's Note: Peter Eichenberger, calling himself Commandante SubZero in his battle against the proposed roommate ordinance, reports that after the Jan. 21 hearing there will be a rally at the Berkeley Café,
217 W. Martin St.
Bob Geary will be entertaining compromise proposals at the home he owns in an embattled neighborhood off Hillsborough Street.)

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