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CCAC discusses zoning law

John Cameron | Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A large number of students are currently renting off-campus residences against zoning laws, said Director of South Bend Code Enforcement Catherine Toppel at Tuesday’s Community/Campus Advisory Coalition (CCAC) meeting.

A 2004 zoning bill required all owners seeking to rent a residence to more than two unrelated people had to come before a committee for approval, City Council Member Ann Puzzello said.

Many homes were grandfathered into exemption.

“I’ve been working on it in my office, all of these houses being used illegally, potentially hundreds that have too many students,” Toppel said. “None of these houses have been grandfathered, these are just people blatantly skirting the law … there’s been one landlord in particular that has just been a huge problem.”

Puzzello said records are often insufficient in identifying which houses have been grandfathered into the system. She is currently working on a bill to ensure consistent record keeping.

“If you go over to the building department they might say they have no information on a property, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t grandfathered, it just means there’s no documentation,” she said. “My bill is to make a definite documentation part that is required, so if a house is grandfathered to put students in it, there has to be documentation.”

Toppel said her office is prepared to pursue legal action against offending property owners.

“I’m moving forward with violation notices and ticketing procedures, and those will eventually go to court,” she said.

Student body president Catherine Soler said she is concerned about students who already signed leases for the 2011-2012 without knowing a home’s zoning laws.

“I think at this point everyone for next year has already signed their leases,” she said. “I’d be interested to know what the timeline would be for kicking people out of their leases.”

Toppel said the offending residences would have to be resolved by the beginning of the next school year.

University Associate Vice President for Public Affairs Tim Sexton said it is important for students to ask landlords the right questions and to use other resources available to them.

“There’s resources out there, it’s whether kids are really taking the time to look,” Sexton said.

Soler said the beND Good Neighbor Guide distributed this year is one source of information available to students facing leasing problems.

“[The Good Neighbor Guide] is available on [the student government] website, and we’ve also got the leasing fair,” she said.

Local landlord Mark Kramer said the zoning problems were another indication that a designated area for off-campus student housing could help alleviate some of the difficulties arising from the student presence in South Bend.

“The reality of it is, for the students, [moving off campus] is a right of passage,” he said. “Wouldn’t it make sense to have one designated area that won’t be disturbing to the neighbors, that you could build nice houses that would be up to code and could be a gated area where the students feel safe?”

Local attorney and Notre Dame graduate Dick Nussbaum said it was an interesting point but would likely meet resistance in the community.

“You’ve raised the issue and I think it needs to be discussed … I think the forum for it is the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization,” he said. “In all frankness, you’re not going to have a welcoming forum for it.”

Several members said there was no available location for such a project, but Kramer said renovating some areas of the city through such a project could benefit both students and South Bend residents.

“These houses are sources of problems for students and problems for the neighborhood. They’re vacant, they’re graffitied and they’re sources of crime,” he said. “The Northeast neighborhood is going to be the winner as well. It seems to me that [housing developers and city residents] could work in harmony.”