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More students violating zoning off campus

Aaron Steiner | Thursday, November 20, 2008

While the number of students living off campus has remained stable over recent years, an increasing amount of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students living off campus are in violation of local zoning codes, according to city and county officials.

More students are violating city and county regulations about the number of unrelated occupants a home may have.

“What I am seeing this year are a lot more single family homes – properties that are zoned for single family use only – being occupied by more than two students,” Catherine Toppel, director of Code Enforcement for the City of South Bend said.

Most homes in residential districts in South Bend and St. Joseph’s County are zoned single family. No more than two unrelated people are allowed to occupy a single family home, according to county Assistant Zoning Administrator Mark Lyons.

“Three students constitutes a violation, both in the city and the county,” Lyons said.

Students are increasingly living in single family homes as new houses become available for rent or purchase, Toppel said.

According to files obtained by The Observer through a public records request, the city filed reports of over a half dozen violations in neighborhoods south of Notre Dame’s campus since August of this year. Reported violations include homes on Pokagon St., Angela Blvd., Marquette Ave., and N. Foster St. Some of the records showed cases with fines of up to $1,000 per day.

Toppel said her office has investigated at least 15 properties in the city this school year, more than twice the number of cases as in past years. Toppel said there are numerous other properties in violation that are not being investigated.

Chuck Bulot, the county building commissioner, said that he has seen more concentrated violations in neighborhoods east of campus, including properties in a six-block area around Warrick St. Bulot said between 15 and 20 homes have been reported this year.

“The unfortunate side of these issues is that students are going to have to move,” Toppel said, or face fines and possible legal action.

Establishing the current code and exceptions

Lyons said the current zoning regulations were enacted in 2004. The new code restricted the number of unrelated people who may live in a property zoned single family.

People can be legally related by blood, marriage or adoption, Lyons said.

“If you have two students in a single family home, that’s the maximum you can have, because they’re two unrelated people,” Lyons said.

There are exceptions to this code, however, Lyons said.

When the current zoning code was enacted in 2004, homes that were occupied by more than two unrelated people at the time were “grandfathered in.”

“If you can prove you’ve consistently used it for that use (with more than two unrelated occupants) since 2004, without lapsing for more than a one year time period, you can continue to use it” with more than two students, Lyons said.

Lyons said that of the homes students are currently living in off campus, there is a “mixture” of homes that are in violation and homes that are legally grandfathered.

Many of the homes rented by well-known rental companies in South Bend are not in violation, Lyons explained.

“A lot of them in the city were existing (student homes),” Lyons said, prior to the new code.

Local landlord Mark Kramer said he is aware of the code and all of the homes he rents to more than two students are legally grandfathered.

“I will not rent a house if it’s not zoned correctly,” Kramer said. While Kramer does rent properties that are zoned single family and are not grandfathered, “we never put more than two students in the house,” he said.

Home purchases, new rentals increase violations

Still, Toppel said some landlords rent non-grandfathered single family homes to more than two students.

In addition, many of the new violations come from homes that are purchased by the students themselves or their families, Toppel said.

“Housing is rather reasonable in South Bend and it’s sometimes more reasonable … to purchase a home, and have the student bring [roommates] to make the mortgage,” she said.

Toppel said violations arise from both ignorance about regulations as well as blatant violation of the code in other cases. The property owner – whether it is the resident or a landlord – is legally responsible for knowing and abiding by the code.

“In my opinion, most of the time, students aren’t aware,” Toppel said.

When parents purchase homes, some do not know about regulations, while others choose to blatantly violate them.

“I’ve had more parents be blatant about it than students,” Toppel said.

When parents – or landlords – purchase homes, Toppel said she instructs real estate agencies and sellers to notify prospective buyers of the codes.

Pam DeCola, a real estate agent at the South Bend office of Cressy & Everett, said that entire real estate community is sensitive to the code.

“We do make sure that we let the prospective buyer know that it is a St. Joseph County ordinance that you cannot have more than two unrelated people in a residence,” DeCola said.

She said that while agents make the code known, there are often cases where “there ends up being at least two if not more students living there.”

Investigating violations, enforcing code

Toppel and Bulot said investigations about over-occupied single family homes are driven solely by complaints, most often from neighbors.

“We investigate every complaint that comes in,” Bulot said. “We go out physically to see if there are any overt signs of over occupancy.”

This includes multiple cars with out-of-state plates, multiple bikes and other visible indicators, Bulot said.

Once there is enough evidence to prove the home is over-occupied and in violation, Toppel and Bulot said they send preliminary letters detailing the violations. Toppel said that the city allows 10 days to resolve the issue. Owners can prove they were in compliance, rezone – which she said is highly unlikely – or move students out of the home until only two occupants remain.

For properties that remain in violation, citations are issued starting at $50 and reaching up to $1,000 per day. Legal action is the last resort, Toppel said.

Both Toppel and Bulot said they try to be reasonable when dealing with students and in forcing any of them to move out.

“Sometimes there are leases involved, and we don’t want to put any unnecessary burden on a [resident] as long as in good faith they’re making progress,” Bulot said.

Toppel said the increasing number of violations have led her to be stricter when it comes to allowing students to wait until the end of a semester to move out.

“We can’t really offer that [lenience] anymore as a city, because it’s become blatant,” Toppel said.

Toppel said she recognizes that it is difficult to move out of a house mid-semester.

“The students are going to be upset. One, they’re going to have to leave their friends. Two, they’re going to have to find a new place to live,” Toppel said. “And how do you draw straws? Who’s leaving the house?

Toppel added: “I try to see both sides of the story, to be fair, to draw a middle line.”

Dealing with current, future cases

Bulot said of cases the county is currently investigating, a series of nine properties in the neighborhood east of campus must be resolved in the coming months. Toppel said she has a number of violations she is currently addressing, and the outcomes will be varied.

Toppel said she would continue to work with landlords, sellers and real estate agents, and continue to investigate complaints as they come in. But she said students should be aware of the risks they take when moving off campus to a single family home.

“I would suggest they look somewhere else before they put themselves in that position,” she said.

Lyons said students should investigate whether the home they are renting or purchasing is properly zoned, especially if they plan to have more than two people living in the home.

That’s especially important when leases are involved, he said.

“For the students to protect themselves, they need to get something in writing, from that landlord, that says it is a legal property to be used that way [as a student house],” Lyons said. “They want to do their homework and not put themselves in risk of a situation where they would need to find a new place to live in the middle of the year.”