Responding to roomers: Complaints to the city council about rental homes spurs review of Cape Girardeau's zoning ordinances

Saturday, January 3, 2009
Doug Esham sands the floor in a house at 342 N. Park Ave. that is being refurbished for rental.

For much of 2008, the issue of how many unrelated people can live together in a single-family home stymied the Cape Girardeau Planning and Zoning Commission. Unable to reach a solution, the commission will try again this year as it works through a complete review of city zoning rules in response to the recently completed comprehensive plan.

The first attempt at rewriting the rules was prompted by complaints to members of the city council. Those complaints focused on two concerns — renovations to older homes near Southeast Missouri State University and the sale of properties in newer subdivisions to investors who then lease the homes to tenants.

The city code allows up to five unrelated people to live together in an area zoned for single-family homes. In the city code, that is defined as a "family unit" of up to three people and two "roomers." But there are exceptions, such as allowing an extra roomer when there is an extra kitchen. Another exception is an allowance for an unlimited number of live-in domestic servants.

In areas zoned for duplexes or apartment buildings, the code allows up to four roomers to live with the family unit under certain circumstances.

"The more we talked about it, the more it became apparent that this is not a simple matter," commission chairman William Hinckley said. "You have some good aspects of roomers. It gives people an opportunity to take some property that is maybe going downhill some, fix it up, use it primarily for college students and it is a good thing. The bad aspect is that people who live in an R-1 residential area suddenly find their streets being parked on all the time, there are sometimes some loud disturbances and people can become concerned about property values."

Spreading problem

As part of the discussions, city staff reviewed the rules in other cities. Springfield, Mo., allows three unrelated people to live together, with a fourth allowed if there is adequate off-street parking. Columbia, Mo., allows three. Jackson was not mentioned in a memo prepared by the staff but it also has a three-person limit.

"What has really brought it to the surface now is that it is beginning to show up all across the city," said Ken Eftink, assistant city manager. "People expect it somewhat closer to the university, but it is spreading out to other areas."

In July, staff met with several landlords who voiced strong objections to any changes. They viewed the proposals as an attack on their profitability and questioned whether the city should be enacting stricter rules when the current zoning code is insufficiently enforced.

"They have a job, to protect the people of Cape Girardeau," said Tina McMahon of McClanahan Real Estate-Property Management. "The only thing I am asking for is that they be fair and not closed minded because a select few people have a complaint. That doesn't make it a problem for everybody. I hope this is not going to be a one-sided issue."

A reduction from five to three as the maximum in a single home would make expensive renovations of neglected property less affordable for property investors, McMahon said. It would also affect people who can't afford the full rent on a quality place to live, she said.

"That investor is going to have to make money," McMahon said. "Vacant homes cause vandalism."

One of the most recent complaints about a potential conversion of a home to allow more than five people involved a property at 342 N. Park Ave. Owned by Rivertown Investments LLC, the home is being made ready with five bedrooms. City inspectors visited the home when neighbors heard there could be more than five tenants, and were assured that the limit would be observed, said Robb Bartlett, managing partner with the investor group.

Enrollment up at SEMO

The property is adjacent to the Southeast campus, where a rapidly growing student enrollment is putting pressure on rentals. The university has increased enrollment by more than 35 percent since 1994. Freshmen and other new students with fewer than 57 credit hours must live on campus, but the number of upperclassmen and graduate students is increasing as well.

The home is also in the proposed Boulevard Historic District, where proponents had originally hoped to limit rental homes to housing no more than two people with different surnames.

The home has three kitchens, which would make it legal for the landlords to rent to seven people. But the partnership is limiting the number to five.

If the tenant limit is reduced to three, Bartlett said, "we would have to be much more restrictive in the properties we do. A lot of other investors I have spoken with said they wouldn't be able to make those investments."

One potential solution under consideration, Hinckley said, is one zoning rule for rental property in older properties near the university and another for more recently developed subdivisions. "That may be a more reasonable approach in some instances," Hinckley said.

The discussions will continue over the coming months, and Hinckley said he hopes to be able to report a proposal to the council by midsummer.

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