Local renters, beware of the limit

willdoran

Housing in Chapel Hill is, to put it lightly, complicated.

From restaurants and bars to classrooms and offices, nearly everything for everyone is on or near campus.

That can prove tricky, putting “townies,” as some students refer to longtime residents, next door to temporary 20-somethings. Noise complaints, parking issues and trash problems, along with different schedules and values, put the groups at odds. And neither side’s hands are entirely clean.

But there is one issue in which students are clearly at a disadvantage: legal repercussions.

The town has ordinances governing all aspects of housing, one of which prohibits more than four unrelated people from living together. This is largely to cut down on the aforementioned problems, and that’s fair.

The unfair part is that students found to be in violation of the ordinance can face enormous financial consequences disproportionate to their crimes. Meanwhile, the owners and landlords who led them into that situation or overlooked it receive a slap on the wrist, if that.

If found in violation, as many residents as necessary must leave within 30 days to bring the house up to standards. They must then find new housing in Chapel Hill’s expensive and saturated housing market. Those left over could also be responsible for the lost rent.

Dottie Bernholz, the director of Carolina Student Legal Services, said this issue won’t go away unless owners are made more accountable, as most renters aren’t aware of the rule. Besides simply not knowing the law, she said students like houses with a lot of bedrooms for the low rent.

The owners rent out these properties because they can earn more money than with fewer rooms.

It’s a vicious cycle of market economics that unfortunately is better for both sides the more unlawful it is.

Rae Buckley, Chapel Hill’s housing and neighborhood services senior planner, has seen that same trend. She’s seen several properties where the owners add bedrooms or simply tear the house down and build a bigger one with no regard to how it fits in the neighborhood. But there’s no real way to punish offending owners, so the tradition continues with students stuck in the middle.

Owners who don’t fix a violation within 30 days are fined $100 per day, per violation. But they can pass that on to renters, said Chelsea Laws, senior code enforcement officer for the town.

The town is working on a database of offending owners, but staffing and technology woes have held it up.

Bernholz advocates for a registry of all rental properties, which she said would make owners more accountable as well as create a database of all their offenses, or lack thereof, for renters’ sake.

Buckley said for now, the town is operating on an unofficial policy of not surveilling or searching suspicious properties, and will only act when there is evidence, like 12 people applying for parking passes at one address.

It stresses a good neighbor policy over following the ordinance verbatim, and that’s a good start. The town just needs to keep it up, and students need to work at being better neighbors, lest they pay the price.

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