Nov 7, 2009

Universities are Neighborhood Eating Machines

“It was a relatively quiet little neighborhood,” said Bob Kelly, the president of the Elizabeth Street North Neighborhood Association. Ten years ago Kelly noticed a large addition being built on a house near his.

“I said to myself ‘That thing is huge, I see it above the house,’” said Kelly. “’Surely this can’t be allowed.’ I called the city and they said there’s no limit on additions.”

On Thursday, Oct 15 the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council passed a resolution declaring a 6-month moratorium on constructing additions larger than 25 percent of the original structure in the neighborhoods surrounding UK in response to outcry from residents that their areas are being overrun by students.

“We’re talking about additions, many of them over 100% larger than original structure,” said third district councilwoman Diane Lawless, who proposed the moratorium. “These are older neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to support them.”

“I think there are some things we can do to mitigate what comes with the density issue,” said councilwoman at-large Linda Gorton, who lived on Westwood Court for 4 years. The ordinance is in response to the rapid proliferation of large vinyl additions to the small one-family homes that fill the neighborhoods surrounding UK.

Neighborhood leaders stressed that their concerns didn’t amount to a desire to rid their streets of student renters.

“I think diversity in the neighborhood is great, everyone is welcome as long as they obey the regulations of the student housing task force,” said Kelly, a 21-year resident of the neighborhood and architecture professor at UK.

“I was disappointed that I could only get it passed in the third district,” said Lawless. “That was the only way I could get enough votes to get it passed. This is not about student housing, it doesn’t matter who is living in it.”

Students have cause for concern with what happens in the neighborhoods around campus.

On Oct. 9 Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry announced that an inspection found 13 of the homes converted for student housing near UK’s campus have significant life safety issues. According to residents these student houses don’t only pose a life safety threat to the students who rent them, but adversely affect the neighborhood they are built in. The inspection also found 6 violations of fire codes.

“I a lot of times, the additions will have rooms listed something other than a bedroom,” said Lawless, “and therefore it won’t have to have the proper egress as far as fire codes are concerned.”

“Nobody wants to wake up one morning open a paper and find out that a house with too many people in it and without the proper fire code safety issues has burned up with 12-13 students inside.”

On Oct. 16, Councilwoman Gorton accompanied neighborhood leaders and members of the UK Administration on a tour of the areas surrounding campus.

“I had heard so many people from the neighborhood stand up at the microphone and say where is UK, UK does nothing,” said Gorton. “I wondered if any one had ever asked the president to go tour the neighborhood.”

The increasing density of these two neighborhoods, adjacent to the University of Kentucky campus to the southwest and along the busy Limestone Street corridor, has pushed homeowners to approach the city with their concerns.

“I have heard are lots of complaints about parking,” said Gorton. “When we toured with Dr. Todd one of the things we saw was lots of space on properties made into parking lots, some of which clearly were against the law.”

Traffic and trash accompany parking atop neighbors’ lists of complaints.

“It is scary trying to get out of my driveway,” said Molly Davis, President of the Elizabeth Street Neighborhood Association.“There’s more trash, there are students who don’t know how to use their recycling bins, and students who don’t remember to bring their trash cans in.”

”It starts to degrade the neighborhood,” said Kelly

“That isn’t students’ fault,” said Davis. “That is the landlords for trying to cram as many people as possible on a lot.”

The neighborhood is filled with one-to-two story bungalows, intended to be occupied by small families of around four people. Traditionally the area has housed both students and professionals who seek living space near UK campus. Both Kelly and Davis fear the impact that the increasing density will have on their quality of life.

“We worry about our infrastructure,” said Davis. “Can our power lines, sewers, gas mains, and water mains handle the load now that we have 8-10 students on a plot?”

Neighborhood leaders note the differences between life in a residential neighborhood versus dorm and student apartment life.

“In a neighborhood there is no resident manager,” said Bob Kelly. “These landlords aren’t making sure students are taking care of their property.”

One problem is that there are many absentee landlords. Research for this article found properties owned by businessmen in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Not all rental properties are so separated from their owners.

“I grew up in that neighborhood,” said Steve Olshewsky, an area landlord. “After I grew up I bought and rented property there.”

Olchewsky reasons that no group of people holds blame for the changes in the neighborhood.

“The economic forces are what are at work,” said Olchewsky. “Landlords want to make money. They bought rental real estate. they want to make money with that investment. it is all normal stuff that hasn’t been managed very well by UK and the city.”

“Normally when someone increases the density on their property like that they have to get a zone change to medium or higher density,” said Gorton. However, the large add-ons in the Elizabeth Street neighborhood have not gotten a change in zoning. Another complaint is that the appearances of the add-ons do match the original character of the neighborhood.

“There is a fascination with new, brand new housing.” said Olshewsky, who believes students base their housing preferences on the external appearance of the dwelling. “Older-looking houses don’t have the same appeal.”

Complicating matters are students motivated by economics and seek higher density housing with lower prices.

“I still think you can occupy a single family dwelling on a single family lot with 4-5 students,” said Kelly. “Now you have 8-10 students. When you start to make a single family zoned area that dense you have a lot of problems”

Olshewsky states he has not built vinyl additions to his properties. He isn’t the only landlord who has maintained the character of his properties.

“I’ve never done any of it,” said landlord Paul Taylor. Taylor has owned and rented houses around campus for 28 years. He is selling his properties and leaving the business.

“I was satisfied with what I had,” said Taylor. “I didn’t care about the expansions. all mine are as they were when they were built, with the exception of one or two with small additions.”

The neighborhood association presidents don’t object to living with students or next to rental housing. They argue that a landlord can make plenty of money from renting out a property in their neighborhoods in its original, unaltered state and still make plenty of money.

“Yes, I made a living and bought and paid for my houses. Its been good for me,” agreed Taylor

Lawmakers are eager to bring landlords, the neighborhoods, and UK to the table to forge a compromise agreeable to all parties.

“I hope we can move quickly,” said Lawless. “There are ordinances on the books that I think can be tweeked and better enforced.”

Linda Gorton agreed that the city should use ordinances to bring the increasing neighborhood density under control, but not everyone feels that the solution to the problem lies in city ordinances. Some landlords say they are being unfairly targeted.

“The city has many code enforcers and all they have to do is drive up and down the street. They have had sweeps and have specifically targeted and cited the owners. It is a message from the city that they think landlords have gotten greedy.” Said Olchewsky. “The city doesn’t want to increase their outlay of money, so instead they send bad messages to landlords which are misinterpreted.”

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