Full house 

Occupancy standards challenge slumlords and fairness

John Patterson has lived on South 5th St. near the University of Montana since 1954. The neighborhood’s mix of homeowners and student renters has been creating the same problems for as long as he can remember.

“When we moved in here we saw a lot of degradation, a number of houses were being turned over to slumlords who put about a dozen students into a house built for four people,” Patterson says.

The blighted lawns, the lack of parking, and the loud parties have only gotten worse over the years, he says. “It’s a real cancer and it’s spreading all over town.” Now a group of University-area homeowners believes it has found a workable solution. It has drafted a new proposal for citywide occupancy standards that is headed for the city council. Missoula will soon decide if it should limit the number of non-related individuals who can live together in the same house or apartment.

Occupancy standards are hardly a new concept in Missoula. A similar limit was on the books until five years ago. It fell under scrutiny in 1996 when a student filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Commission, which then negotiated a settlement with the city that involved repealing the ordinance. Backers of the new proposal say they have fine-tuned the language to bring the law into full compliance with state and federal housing discrimination laws. Meanwhile, opposition to the ordinance has made allies of a diverse cross-section of Missoula interests, from students to realtors.

“I’ve been pushing for getting a diverse group of people together that represents all housing in Missoula,” says Diane Beck, president of the Missoula County Association of Realtors. By contrast, Beck says, “it’s a very small group of people that have gotten together to write the ordinance.”

The Realtors’ association recently issued a 10-point statement of opposition to the occupancy standards. The statement calls the proposal discriminatory, redundant, and unenforceable. The realtors have also raised basic constitutional questions.

“There’s a thing called private property rights,” Beck says. The supporters of the law say the new proposal is legal because it focuses on the definition of a “household” rather than a “family.” The state Human Rights Commission found that the previous ordinance’s family definition violated the Montana Human Rights Act.

The new proposal defines a “household” as any two individuals plus their ancestors, descendants and siblings. Although the standards would apply citywide, they would be applied differently to different parts of town. In the most restrictive areas, only three non-related individuals would be allowed per dwelling unit, with exceptions for group homes, assisted living centers, and fraternities and sororities.

According to Kathy Helland, bureau chief of the Montana Human Rights Commission, the new proposal does not seem to violate the familial status protection clause, though some questions remain.

“There may be an adverse impact based upon people of a certain age, 19 to 22,” Helland says. “We just explained that that might be a problem but didn’t have the numbers to look at it one way or another.”

The Human Rights Commission would only investigate whether the ordinance violated age discrimination laws if someone files a complaint, Helland says. She also stressed that the Commission has not yet taken a position on the ordinance.

Proponents of the occupancy standards say their aim is to help students, not discriminate against them. Ty Robinson, a backer of the standards and a member of the University Area Homeowners Association, says he remembers a time when homeowners would rent rooms of their homes to a couple of students. Now, he says, absentee owners pack multiple students into cramped quarters for a large profit.

“We see that these high rentals take advantage of the students,” Robinson says. “We think also that our efforts would help to stabilize these neighborhoods.” Patterson echoes the sentiment, linking the tactics of predatory landlords to students’ poor upkeep of their homes.

“It isn’t the student’s fault, it’s the slum lords who charge way too much rent for them,” Patterson says. “So if they’re being ripped off they don’t care about taking care of the place.”

Most students, however, do not see the standards as working to their advantage, says Christopher Peterson, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana.

“Particularly with rental increases we’ve seen, students are paying a lot more for a lot lower standard of living,” Peterson says. “The occupancy standards do not address that.”

The proposal is now under the jurisdiction of the city council’s Plat, Annexation, and Zoning (PAZ) committee, which expects to bundle the issue into Phase Two of the city’s Growth Management Plan. In a preview of how the issue will divide the city council, at a PAZ committee meeting in October Ward Three Councilwoman Lou Ann Crowley says the ordinance would strengthen both the city’s zoning codes and the fabric of neighborhoods. Ward Two Councilman Jim McGrath countered that zoning is meant to deal with the location of units, not their ownership or occupancy, and that has becoming necessary for the working poor to group together to pay their rent. Recent figures show that while wages have been declining in Missoula, rents have increased by more than 30 percent in the last decade.

“We’ve got an affordable housing crisis in this town and I think this is just going to make it worse,” says Ward Three Councilman John Torma.

The issue could come before the city council in January or February, says Ward Five Councilman Scott Morgan. For Morgan, chairman of the PAZ committee, there are important legal and practical questions, but ultimately there is a greater question of whether the city should dictate how people live their lives.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for the government to tell people who gets to live with whom,” Morgan says. “I think we benefit actually when people devise less than absolutely stereotyped ways to combine for their good and cooperation.”

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