Relative numbers 

A look at occupancy standards around the region

The latest proposed occupancy standards for Missoula would put tighter restrictions than most other cities in the region on who can live together in the university area.

The proposed Missoula ordinance would apply citywide, but would have different limits for different parts of town. A maximum of three non-related people could live together in the area surrounding the University of Montana.

While occupancy standards are fairly common, a Missoula Independent examination of the laws in college towns across the western United States found that most cities allow at least four non-related people to live together in the vicinity of their universities. It is also more common for cities to apply their occupancy standards most loosely around their universities to encourage mixed-use neighborhoods, according to numerous city officials and people involved with universities and real estate in the different cities.

In towns whose occupancy standards are closer to the Missoula proposal, in each case a vigorous debate exists and the local governments are considering changing the laws.

In Eugene, Ore., home of the University of Oregon, zoning codes restrict single-family homes in residential areas to one family, or a maximum of five unrelated individuals. Near the university, however, the laws are more lax.

“Most of the zoning around the university is higher density housing,” says Jerry Lidz, an attorney for the city of Eugene. “There are a few places where it’s single-family residential where we would not allow more than five unrelated students to share a house.”

Pullman, Wash., home of Washington State University, limits dwellings in certain residential zones to three unrelated people, but like Eugene it has a looser standard for its university area.

“Most of the land surrounding the university is higher density for apartments, duplexes, triplexes and smaller single-family homes,” says Pete Dickinson, planning director for the city of Pullman. Although one three-person residential zone exists near the university, most of the adjacent zoning is for four unrelated people or more, Dickinson says.

The city code in Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho, limits housing occupancy to a single family or no more than six non-related individuals. In Corvallis, Ore., home of Oregon State University, a citywide occupancy standard allows up to five non-related people to live together. Grand Forks, N.D., home of the University of North Dakota, and Vermillion, S.D., home of the University of South Dakota, both have citywide ordinances that limit dwelling units to four non-related people.

Madison, Wisc. has a complex set of zoning laws, restricting some units in residential areas to no more than two unrelated people. However, the law allows multiple non-related individuals to live together in the area surrounding the University of Wisconsin.

“The restrictions are in the mostly residential areas as opposed to the campus area,” says Carol Monson, a past president of the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, with 30 years of experience in the Madison housing market. “You can have eight students in one house next to a property owner who lives in his own home.”

University-area homeowners there have not tried to deal with issues like noise, trash, lack of parking or general unruliness by trying to extend the occupancy standards into the area, says Monson. “The issues that we’re talking about have been addressed more on the building inspection level and on the police complaint and enforcement level,” she says.

A similar situation exists in Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the University of Michigan, according to Ann Arbor Zoning Coordinator Jim DeWolf.

“It’s all multi-family dwelling districts around the university. As a rule it’s limited to six unrelated people,” DeWolf says.

The Missoula proposal, drafted by a group of university-area homeowners, would fill the void left when the city’s previous ordinance was struck down in 1996. The state Human Rights Commission negotiated with the City Council after it received a discrimination complaint, and the City Council ended up voiding the law. The basis of the complaint was that the ordinance’s family definition violated the state Human Rights Act.

The new proposal focuses on a definition of “household” rather than “family,” and a household is defined as one or two people and their ancestors, descendants, and siblings. The proposed ordinance allows a “household” to share a dwelling unit with one, two, or three non-related people, depending on the area of the city. The most restrictive areas are those closest to the University of Montana, such as the area directly south and west of UM and the lower Rattlesnake to the north of campus. Those areas would be limited to a household plus one other individual, or a total of three non-related people.

David Aronofsky, general counsel for the University of Montana, seized upon the distinction at the Feb. 4 City Council meeting.

“The most restricted zoning provisions in the proposal are in the university neighborhood,” Aronofsky said at the meeting. “The smallest number of unrelated people who can live…in the university neighborhood and the lower Rattlesnake are in the neighborhoods where the largest percentage of students live. That’s a frontal assault on our student community, quite frankly.”

University area resident Richard Baskett says the proposal is not targeted at students and is not even focused on the university area. Baskett, an attorney who helped draft the proposed ordinance, stresses that it applies citywide. The different limits for different areas are based on whether an area is commercial, industrial, or residential, he says. The university area just happens to be a primarily residential area.

“You keep the lower densities in the quieter neighborhoods and the higher densities in the areas that are zoned for commercial or industrial use,” Baskett says.

Other towns may allow four or more non-related individuals to room together, Baskett says, but “they’re still drawing lines someplace. In this ordinance we’re talking about in the most restrictive zones it would be three. There’s no magic to the number.”

To explain how the drafters came up with the number three, Baskett gives a practical example.

“A lot of the areas that have been built in single-family zoned areas haven’t been built to accommodate a whole bunch of cars,” he says. “If you’ve got three cars in a household then you’re probably able to accommodate things pretty well, but if you start getting four or five then in those areas that haven’t been designed for that then you’ve got some problems.”

The Missoula City Council had planned to look at the new proposal as part of this year’s major zoning overhaul, Growth Management Phase Two. Last week, though, Councilmen Jerry Ballas (Ward Four) and Clayton Floyd (Ward Six) used Council rules to force the proposal out of committee and send it to the planning board on its own. The proposal now stands to come before the City Council—which by all accounts is evenly divided on the issue—within the next couple of months.

Missoula will not be alone as it debates the proposed ordinance. In towns where the laws apply strictly near colleges, there also tend to be ongoing debates.

The law in Boulder, Colo. limits dwellings in the University Hill neighborhood to three non-related people. The occupancy limits debate there is part of a tense overall climate in Boulder, where University of Colorado students have rioted several times in the past several years, and where concerned residents formed a University Hill Action Group.

In December, the Boulder city attorney sent a lengthy report on the legality and history of occupancy standards to the City Council.

“While University Hill neighbors have continued to request increased enforcement of occupancy restrictions, property managers have claimed that such enforcement is unconstitutional, unfair and inconsistent with serving the community’s housing needs,” the report reads. On Jan. 23, the University of Colorado Student Union announced that it opposes the occupancy standards. The Boulder City Council will be discussing the issue in the first quarter of 2002, according to the city attorney.

Pocatello, Idaho, home of Idaho State University, and Bellingham, Wash., home of Western Washington University, both have citywide occupancy limits of three non-related people per unit. The laws are under review in both towns.

According to Michelle Pak, associate planner for the city of Pocatello, the law is loosely enforced and complaints have been received from both critics and proponents of the occupancy standard. Pak’s office recently surveyed a number of other communities in the northwest and she says that four or five non-related people seems to be a more common number. The Pocatello City Council will be reviewing the matter in the coming year.

The situation is similar in Bellingham. The City Council there will be considering changing the standard, as some feel the number is out of step with other cities, according to senior planner Marilyn Vogel.

“On the planning commission there’s some interest in not being so tight with that,” Vogel says. “If you look at other communities around the country, the number three is pretty restrictive. The number five is much more common around the country.”

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