May 14, 2021

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Homeowners Stop Rooming House | New Haven Independent

Concerned about drugs, traffic, and violence, Upper Westville neighbors convinced city zoners to stop a two-family home from becoming a rooming house.

That decision took place Tuesday night during the latest monthly meeting of the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). The four-hour virtual meeting was held online via Zoom.

The zoning commissioners unanimously turned down landlord Nicotra Redd’s application for a use variance to allow for a rooming house at 101 Davis St.

City zoning law does not permit rooming, boarding or lodging houses — defined as residential buildings occupied by four or more unrelated roomers — in RM-1 Low-Middle Density Districts, such as the one that includes 101 Davis.

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“I believe that many may find that a rooming house which is overseen can bring more harmony due to the fact that rules are enforced” than a potentially unruly single-family or two-family residence on the block, Redd said. She said she is a nursing home administrator with experience overseeing patients and employees, and that she would “uphold the rules as far as state and federal and city regulations” are concerned.

In her written submitted application to the zoning board, Redd stressed the financial hardship she has experienced as a landlord during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I am looking to obtain a room house license for the purpose of renting out rooms,” she wrote. “In short, I am hoping to be able to survive the strain this pandemic has set upon our economic system, in lieu of succumbing to these pandemic restraints.”

Ultimately, BZA commissioners denied the application because, as Chair Mildred Melendez put it, the hardship a variance applicant needs to prove is “a hardship of the land, not a financial hardship. Tonight, I feel like the applications has lacked to provide that to us.”

Before the commissioners took their final vote, they heard a raft of public testimony from immediate neighbors to the property.

Their concerns, however, were not with whether or not Redd had a so-called hardship of the land. Rather, their opposition zeroed in on the safety and quality of life of the neighborhood — and how they believe adding a rooming house to the block would be a burden rather than a boon.

The neighborhood message represented quite a different perspective from one often offered at public meetings around housing — during which advocates and city officials stress time and again the need for more affordable housing citywide.

Instead, it echoed the “neighborhood character” argument voiced by a host of Lawrence Street homeowners when a local landlord sought to convert an East Rock two-family house into five separate apartments.

City assessor photo

That dilemma—between supporting more affordable housing, while critiquing housing that some residents believe may negatively impact a neighborhood—was perhaps best encapsulated by Westville/Amity Alder Richard Furlow (pictured), who spoke up on Tuesday in opposition to the rooming house plan.

“It’s very difficult for me to oppose housing, because we have a housing need in our city,” he said. “But in this application, I don’t see anything that would line up with the city’s agenda to provide affordable housing.” He said the city should be very careful when “rezoning areas,” and he agreed that the application did not appear to meet the strict legal standards for a variance.

“I’m asking you to hear the voice of the community,” he said, “and deny this application.”

Later in the evening, Furlow spoke out in support of another zoning relief application in his ward — a proposed suite of lot area, side yard, gross floor area, and building wall height variances designed to legalize an existing fourth apartment built above a garage at a three-family house at 9 Pardee Pl. “This is exactly the type of thing that we should be developing throughout our city,” Furlow said about the accessory dwelling unit.

Opponents: “Fundamental Fabric” Threatened

Local attorney and Westville resident Ben Trachten kicked off the public testimony on the rooming-house matter by stating that, contrary to his usual speaking up in support of zoning relief applications before the BZA, he would be urging the board to turn down this matter.

Rooming houses are a particularly challenging use and are limited to only the highest-density residential zone, he said. Without comprehensive zoning regulatory changes, he said, this type of use simply is not allowed in this type of zone.

“This beautiful house can be used in a myriad of legal ways,” he said. “This is a financial difficulty personal to the applicant which also threatens the fundamental fabric of the neighborhood.”

Neighbor after neighbor who spoke up after Trachten agreed.

Jenine Wilson said she has lived on nearby Earl Street, and that both Earl and Davis are already filled with vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

“I don’t want any more traffic from people who are transient, who are in and out of the neighborhood, who don’t have anything invested,” she said. “I don’t want to live near a rooming house.”

Democratic Town Committee Ward 27 Co-Chair Andrea Downer also warned about the traffic and transient implications of a rooming house. “That is not in harmony with the neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t think I would welcome a rooming house. It’s in and out, like a revolving door. There’s no investment.”

“Those of us who own in the neighborhood are wanting it to feel like a neighborhood, and safe,” said Davis Street resident Jeanne Fuqua. She said she would have safety concerns about living right across the street from a rooming house.

Fellow Davis Street resident Lakiya Nichols said the same.

“I’m concerned with what kind of tenants this would attract,” she said. “I’m concerned with high turnover. There is a difference when people stay long term. They’re more invested in the neighborhood.”

She also said that a rooming house might have a negative impact on nearby property values because it might make the block a less “desirable place for potential homeowners, for people wanting to invest in the community.”

And Valencia Cullbreath said that, when she bought her home on Davis Street 28 years ago, it was a “quiet neighborhood” and safe for her son to play outside and for her to walk her dog after dark.

Then a strip mall was built around the corner, which “commercialized” the area and “brought a tremendous amount of traffic in our neighborhood. We do not feel safe.” She said the mall also brought with it drug dealers.

“I do not think that a rooming house will make our situation any better.”

Redd tried to counter the public outpouring against her application by stating that neighbors had voiced “a lot of stereotypes that are basically being put upon a rooming house.” She said that short-term renters are not necessarily more prone to violence than anyone else, especially if a rooming house is carefully monitored and maintained.

“I think there can be a lot of stereotypes,” she repeated.

The commissioners ultimately voted down her proposal.

“It does not seem to be a hardship,” BZA Commissioner Alexandra Daum said. “This could be very easy to rent out under the current, existing zoning. I just don’t see the hardship to convert it into something that is much more burdensome on the neighborhood.”

Tags: Board of Zoning Appeals, rooming houses, Richard Furlow

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posted by: Heather C. on December 10, 2020  3:46pm

Having lived in communal households growing up in the city, and having had many of my parents friends living in the same manner, it can be an affordable alternative to have a large, old multiple bedrooms houses used in this way. But rooming houses aren’t a group of people living in the same household in a cooperative manner. The wooden balloon structure of the majority of the city’s homes built before 1950 are also very dangerous and vulnerable to fires. I would prefer hotels or motels with the appropriate fire safety precautions already built in or former businesses or industrial buildings be remodeled safely as single room occupancy hotels, efficiencies and studios with the neighborhoods being more likely to be downtown or in commercial/industrial neighborhoods. A garage conversion to a mini in law accessory home or carriage house isn’t the same as a rooming house, it’s a separate building. As long as fire safety considerations can be met, it shouldn’t be a burden to the neighborhood. The same goes for basement and 3rd floor attic conversions to apartments, as long as safety, egress and fire considerations are met, changing a legal 2 family to a legal 3 family house shouldn’t be a burden the way a rooming house is to the neighborhood. Many older homes have 2 families and 3 family homes right next to each other where in the 2 unit home the 3rd floor was never converted legally to an apartment but easily could be if proper fire safety precautions were met.

posted by: Ben Trachten on December 10, 2020  7:51pm

Just to clarify because not everyone sits through a 4 hour meeting:

The rooming house application was opposed by a very diverse group of residents. This wasn’t nimbyism. Not even close. 

And think of how the economics of a rooming house make housing less affordable: a three bedroom apartment will rent for maybe 1500-1700 on Davis street. Renting a bedroom is probably 650-800. The only person that benefits is the owner.

Alder Furlow is one Alder who is logically consistant in what he supports and what he opposes. Rooming house with possibility of changing the character of the neighborhood adversely and vigorously opposed by diverse neighbors; opposed. One dwelling unit with ambiguous status a few blocks away that is in harmony with the neighborhood and consistant with BOA goals of encouraging accessory dwelling units as low cost alternatives to new construction; supported. No issue there.

This was simply an application that didn’t even come close to meeting the zoning requirements. This was a bad plan by an uninformed applicant. A six bedroom two family house can be rented to six unrelated individuals under our housing code without issue (essentially using it as a “rooming house”). Though you can’t technically rent bedrooms, you can put three unrelated people in a three bedroom apartment on one lease.

A true rooming house has no individual cooking or eating facilities. I don’t think the applicant had any idea about this. But as a property owner it’s her job to learn what uses are available and not to ask for relief that’s not required. Once this is designated a rooming house, it can remain that way in perpetuity subject to re-licensing by the building department. That sucks for neighbors.

posted by: Hill Resident on December 11, 2020  1:54am

Where in New Haven is the affordable housing for single people making minimum wage … which is $12/hr = $24,900 gross annual? Where are the studio/one bedroom apartments for $650-$690 month = $7,800-$8300. The ‘affordable’ standard is no more than 1/3 of your annual income and for single minimum wage earners is $650-690 a month. I have not seen a studio apartment in New Haven that rented for less than $875 let alone a one bedroom! All that you will find in the $600 range are rooms to rent … in a rooming house!!! And the blanket negative and condescending comments about people living in rooming houses or who receive Section 8 are despicable and those that make them should be ashamed!!! I have never received Section 8 but I lived for a time in a rooming house when I was a young single mother who worked full time at a minimum wage job while going to school. I needed to pay for daycare and a rooming house was ALL I could afford. And the house and the other residents were decent, clean, respectful and respectable people who got along well with each other … because that was the standard set by the property owner and the residents. Rooming houses do not make neighborhoods unsafe, undesirable, unattractive or less quiet. I have a resident homeowner next door to me that exhibits ALL that negative behavior very well on her own! I’ve read about complaints of Woodbridge residents not wanting multi-housing units in their communities and thought ‘what snobs’. I guess snobbery is really determined by where you live … it’s more a state of mind. The sentiments by the Westvillagers are pure NIMBYISM … they said it … ‘not in our neighborhood’. Shame on you. Now zoning is another matter.

posted by: ElmUrbanist on December 11, 2020  12:47pm

@Ben Trachten: “And think of how the economics of a rooming house make housing less affordable: a three bedroom apartment will rent for maybe 1500-1700 on Davis street. Renting a bedroom is probably 650-800. The only person that benefits is the owner.”

I think you’re underestimating the degree to which there are hidden costs and risks to sharing a lease with roommates. Furthermore, SROs typically include utilities and insurance in the rent cost, whereas the 3 bedroom apartment you cite will not. In that case, renting a bedroom in an SRO for $650 might very well be more affordable than splitting a $1500 bill will three other people but also having to worry about other expenses that are variable from month to month and the risk of one of the roommates not being timely about paying their share.

@DawnBli: The definition of affordable housing is housing for which the total costs of rent or a mortgage plus utilities is at or below 30% of the household’s gross income. That’s the definition used by government. You seem to have the idea that the term only refers to programs with the goal of eventually making people homeowners. This is only one part of the affordable housing landscape.

Homeownership is one way of building equity, but it is not the only way and it is not an approach without its own risks and downsides. For some people, it actually makes more financial sense to rent even at higher incomes. An anti-renter mindset is not productive here.

SROs might not be an ideal long-term solution for individuals, but they are one tool among many for getting people rooms they can afford.

“Tenants don’t contribute to a tax base.” Renters absolutely contribute to a tax base. In the case of property taxes, it’s just indirect. (Landlords use the rent to pay the taxes). Many renters contribute additionally just as anybody else does through car taxes, etc.

posted by: Ben Trachten on December 11, 2020  1:51pm

@elmurbanist

A rooming house unit downtown in a legal rooming house, recently renovated, with utilities included (but no amenities) is $1000-$1200. The $650 number was an absolute low-ball. Even if it’s a “break even” between sharing an apartment and a rooming house from the tenants perspective, the transient nature of rooming house occupancy should weigh against sticking them in low and medium density residential neighborhoods. A use variance is a high burden to meet for a rooming house (even more so because the use was poorly described in the application and presentation; I’d guess the applicant didn’t even really want a rooming house because she kept referring to families renting the units which is inconsistant with a rooming house concept). When they post the hearing on the BZA HUBSITE I encourage everyone to watch it in full.

@kevin McCarthy there is no housing that is affordable to minimum wage earners absent some kind of subsidy. Where rents of $600 are being offered, I wouldn’t put my worst enemy in such a unit. And, clearly, this wasn’t a race or class opposition group (except me).

@missingthenighthawks I’d say my biggest concern was for the precedent of granting something like this. I live many blocks away (but still westville) and I did oppose it but I love the idea of rooming houses in industrial zones that border residential areas and in many of our business type zones. In my comments I did say that a rooming house is such a disfavored type of housing that it’s only allowed as of right in 2 of the 13 commercial/industrial zones in NH and by special permit to city plan in one zone. On the residential side, only in the most dense RH-2 zone. This makes sense and there are many buildings that could be converted to affordable (little “a”) rooming houses/SRO units if the regulations changed to allow them in the Light Industrial zone in particular. IL often borders medium density residential zones with big streets as buffers (and for public transit).

posted by: Heather C. on December 11, 2020  2:10pm

Challenge-  Westville absolutely has drugs and violence in it, if you aren’t aware of it, then you don’t know Westville. Not all of Westville is wealthy, upper middle class or middle class.  There has been an increase in violence and drug activity on the West side of town, as there has been through the rest of the city, and indeed, throughout the USA. The concern with rooming houses is safety for the renters as much as it is concern for the safety of the neighborhood. If the landlord wants to live with roommates to help make ends meet, that is a different set up from rooming houses. It’s a lot of picky little details that make the difference, but the difference makes a real impact on the situation for everyone it impacts. The solution to affordable housing isn’t rooming houses. I knew multiple people who lived in the SRO hotel Duncan, and also little efficiency apartments on York St and High St and other streets downtown that I believe have since been converted to condos or regular apartments. The people who lived there were single people working minimum wage jobs and were young as well as old. We need not only affordable apartments for families, we need affordable apartments for singles and couples without children that are affordable for our minimum wage essential workers. The city should encourage building developments with multiple units of efficiency/studio apartments that would have a bathroom, combo sink/mini fridge/2 burner stovetop kitchenette, and a combo bedroom/living space with a closet that includes heat and water but separate electric utilities. If the units rents were kept at 30% of a minimum wage full time job income, then that would help provide housing for the essential workers, young people just starting out in life, and elderly with limited fixed incomes. Allowing garage conversions, attic, basement conversions, non-confirming lot mini houses, all built with the proper safety considerations, will increase the number of units at lower rates.

posted by: Ben Trachten on December 14, 2020  12:37am

@elmurbanist

There is a difference between legitimate/thoughtful opposition and NIMBY opposition.  I associate nimbyism with myopic middle class owners opposing a particular use; something that represents a small change to normal people but is “played up” to the point of being a life altering disruption if approved. People often threaten to sell if the use gets approved. Or swear that the approval would be the end of the neighborhood.

That wasn’t the case here. These neighbors had real concerns and the application didn’t come close to meeting the legal standard for the relief. 

There is so much deep thinking (in the NHI comments section) about housing but when will it get turned into good policy?

I see long-term per unit tax freezes as the ”gap closer” of last resort being approved by the BOA. Im not sure if that’s sustainable, good policy, or if it’s enough to actually get units built. The future will tell.

To me, we can only build our way out of this. The more new units we add of any type the more likely we are to make headway. Luxury units will not be luxury units forever.

And we need to reconsider the 30 percent affordability standard and come to terms with a new reality of it being ok to be somewhat “housing burdened”. I lived through it and came out the other end far smarter for having gone through it (and I should have known better).

Yes, it’s hard, but if you never struggle financially you don’t learn to make better choices. 2008 decimated many homeowners who were strapped with no equity and unsustainable situations. But it was a great learning lesson and many have fully recovered now.

I hear these arguments by this younger cohort that affordable housing is a right. Sure, I get it. It sounds good. But to make it reality you are depriving the recipients of an opportunity to learn to make solid choices about what’s likely to be the biggest item of expense in their lives forever: housing. That’s a waste.

posted by: ElmUrbanist on December 14, 2020  7:59pm

@Ben Trachten: That is a very limited definition of NIMBYism. I’d be interested on your thoughts on the “Neighborhood Defenders” studies. In any case, I think we both agree that we need to build out of the crisis. We need lots more “luxury” units (which seems to be the label they give to all new market rate units nowadays), we need lots more affordable units, and we need to use lots of tools to get there. In some cases, folks are going to have to get used to “the fabric of the neighborhood” as they understand it changing so that we can increase housing stock. (Even if we exclude SROs from the discussion entirely—I haven’t watched the video yet, but at this point if your account is accurate, I agree that denying this particular request was probably the right decision. We do probably disagree in that I can imagine circumstances in which an SRO proposal would have have credible).

I would suggest that your personal experience with the over-30% burden working out just fine can’t be generalized to all people. The 30% standard wasn’t formulated with attorneys or future attorneys in mind (although it is decent budgeting advice if one has a choice), but people living near the poverty line who don’t necessarily have many choices and therefore aren’t necessarily making any mistakes they can learn from. I too have been technically “housing burdened” at certain points, and in retrospect I would have made different choices at these points, but I was healthy and young and had a college degree that opened doors for me. That is, I actually had a choice. Many do not.

There are plenty of people who did everything right with the information they had but suffered setbacks from the 2008 crisis and have not since recovered. Not everyone has a long time horizon, and not everyone has backup options.

posted by: Ben Trachten on December 14, 2020  11:10pm

I’m likely to put forward a proposal for +-200 units of SRO rooming house units where luxury units were previously approved in an IL zone. Let’s see how that’s received!!! I really like the rooming house concept where there is no “neighborhood” to be negatively impacted (like where a bridge and a long walk separates the nearest “residential” area).

The people I have dealt with that have the strongest opinions about affordable housing in elected city government essentially say: I like my (union) job. I shouldn’t have to work more hours. I don’t want a second job. I don’t want to give up my work-life balance. But I want to stay/live in (choose one) east rock/Wooster square/westville with a big-ass two/three bedroom for $1500. And they expect developers/landlords to make that happen and absorb the cost to subsidize their existence; in perpetuity. I just think the onus should be on the individual to increase his/her value/skills/offering over time and earn more to afford more. Or move. Neighborhoods change.

Neighborhoods have identities; some are richer than others. Wealth and resources do allow the haves to exclude others. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. If we don’t have neighborhood stratification people will only be able to decamp to Woodbridge or Madison and there will be no upper middle class enclaves.

These are complicated fraught discussions and I’m just going to put my foot in my mouth again so I’ll stop here. Let’s get back to work to make New Haven even better.

Glad we can have a civilized discussion. I respect all opinions grounded in reason and not emotional pleas..