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Four Tenants Or Two? How 'bout (Ta-Da): Three!

What an exciting thing it is to see your city hall packed with citizens come to share their insights with the elected mayor and council. In Raleigh last Tuesday night, 350 folks--a record number, in my experience--turned out for the public hearing on the ordinance about unrelated tenants. Most probably left not knowing that Raleigh hearings have an official time limit of 16 minutes (eight for the proponents, eight for any opponents). After Mayor Charles Meeker "relaxed" the rules, this one lasted three hours.

Good move. Good for civic participation. They--Meeker & Council--work for us, type of thing. Good points made on both sides.

(And some humor. "The Golden Girls" would be illegal under the ordinance! an opponent declared, to much amusement. But wait a minute, didn't one of them own the house? This proposal has nothing to do with owner-occupied houses. "Ma Barker and Her Boys" would get a pass, joked another. True.)

Now for the bad. It didn't seem like many who spoke, whether pro or con, were listening to what the other side had said. Yes, most were polite. But nobody even tried to suggest how the sacred rights of tenants might be squared with the righteous concerns of homeowners in Raleigh's older neighborhoods. All stood foursquare, do or die, on their principle inviolate.

All, that is, except the last speaker, N.C. State prof Ted Shear, a proponent of the ordinance. Mild-mannered Shear's been called a Nazi, a bigot, a you-name-it for his efforts. His response: "A lot of stupid things get said on both sides." But serious issues have been raised, he added, "on both sides." Time for the council to address them and for both sides to help.

Exactly. Dear friends, this isn't about heaven and earth. It's about zoning. Thy kingdom come, but until then we're all about the imperfect business of creating a city fabric, figuring out how diverse folks can live together in harmony (even when their absentee landlords live in Cary), and whacking up the budget for sidewalk improvements. Money is at stake. So it's gonna be grubby.

A personal note. We own the house we live in. So, no question, I'm sympathetic to folks whose home is their biggest investment and who care about the well-being of their neighborhoods. The problem they describe is real: Absentee landlords are buying up the affordable houses in older Raleigh neighborhoods and turning them into de facto rooming houses. One house, two houses, no problem. More and more and more houses, problem: a snowball effect, as families sell out and head for the 'burbs; unless they're willing to sell at a loss, the only buyers will be--yup--absentee landlords.

On the other hand, the first house I lived in out of college was a 12-room beachfront "cottage" in Long Branch, N.J., occupied by eight of us: the brothers Kaido and Vido (they were Lithuanian) and six others unrelated. Kaido was in charge. He wasn't the owner. But as far as I recall, he's the only one who knew who the owner was. Rent was $75 a month each, plus utilities--just right on my salary of $8,000.

So, when I hear students and young working people say they need affordable housing, I'm for them. When the artist got up and told about how he'd lived in a homeless shelter, and was rescued by three unrelated guys who took him in after he'd kicked booze, I'm for all four of them. Raleigh needs more affordable housing, no question. Let's mix some into the next McMansion-only subdivision.

I'm even for Indy contributor Todd Morman, notwithstanding that he fingered me as the enemy's stooge. Morman said it's discriminatory to hinge people's housing rights on whether they're married. As a single, gay man renting a house with two unrelated women, he said, "I find that deeply, deeply insulting."

Right. Now it's time for grubby politics:

1) Raleigh needs a domestic partners ordinance. Unmarried couples, straight and gay, should have the same rights as marrieds.

2) Raleigh's current limit is four unrelated people in a one-family house. It's not working. The proposed ordinance would cut it to two. The right answer? Teleologically, who knows? Down here: Three.

3) For bigger houses, keep it at four. (Let's be fair to the landlords.)

4) But stop the snowball. License absentee owners and limit the number of conversions in each neighborhood.

Too arbitrary? Base the number of conversions on how many cars the neighborhood can absorb. Because, as one homeowner said, old neighborhoods have narrow streets and, often, houses with one-car driveways. But three tenants equals three cars--plus "guests."

Downtown Raleigh is a balancing act. If we fail to make room for those just starting out, or those scrapping to get a hold, we'll lose its energy and its hope. But unless we stop the snowball, we'll lose the families and their passion. Oh, yes. And their money.

Two things the dead downtowns in America have in common. Lack of money. And absentee landlords. EndBlock

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