Friday, May 29, 2009

Westwood's "Apartment Problem": A CASE STUDY

Since we have been talking about the issues that Westwood faces and the perceived lack of city action on a variety of issues I thought it might be helpful to illustrate how a lax zoning code, a unrealistic housing code and a lack of inspection of existing buildings allow "substandard properties' to be both developed and exist under present ordinance and I hope suggest some solutions as to what concerned residents might want to do.

For the purposes of this "case study" I thought I'd pick just one property. Now there are dozens of properties like this in Westwood and particularly along Harrison Ave , but it does perfectly illustrate the problem.

2294 Harrison Avenue was once a fine single family residence. At 4200 square feet one might call it a mansion. It was certainly built by a person of means. The residence is a classic 1900 era residence with center hall, bay windows, open side veranda porch. It also features a substantial Carriage house with an apartments above. In it 'heyday' the owner likely had full time servants, probably a maid and a chauffeur who lived above the carriage house. It is typical of the large homes left in the area. This one is "surrounded' by apartment buildings likely built in the 50-60's as part of a Post War housing boom that hit this area after WW2, No doubt those lots where the apartment buildings stand once had equally fine residences.

The home is zoned for apartment use. When and how this was done is unclear as the records do not go that far back. The auditors website list the square footage of the home at 4200 square feet and the carriage house at 921 square feet. According to the Auditors website this property is 'registered" as having 6 units, although it appears that there are more than 6 mailboxes on the property at this point. It appears that the carriage house may be occupied yet there is no record of a permit being obtained for it. Its last usage of the carriage house according to city records was as an illegal car repair. There currently appear to be A LOT of people living there and MANY children.

The property has a number of complaints entered in the city system from 2001 on, ranging from broken windows,plumbing problems, serious termite infestations in 05 and again in 06, litter citations, tall grass and weeds and the zoning complaint for the illegal car repair operation.

There have over the last few years been a fair share of police runs to this address on a variety of issues, somewhat typical for an apartment use where too many people are crowded into too small a space
The properties multifamily zoning allows 4-19 units at this address. That's right, zoning would allow up to 19 apartments! Part of the problem lies with the City of Cincinnati Municipal code.

The city code section 1117-19-1 Dwelling Units: Every dwelling unit shall contain a minimum of not less that 150 sq feet for the first occupant and 100 square feet for each additional occupant The floor area shall be calculated on the total area of all habital rooms.

By comparison most American cities have a minimum square footage standard of 400 square feet and many cities as much as 600 square feet per occupant. The Cincinnati standard needs to be updated to be more in line with other cities. People no longer "live' in 150 square feet. A hotel room is larger than that!

According to a permit records check of the City of Cincinnati Cagis EZ Track Permit Record research system NO PERMITS have been pulled on this address since January 1, 1999 which is as far back as records go. The property has changed hands numerous times in 10 years, numerous tenants have come and gone, YET NOT 1 PERMIT has EVER been pulled in that time for any electrical updating, plumbing additions, Heating and cooling!
So one could reasonably ask? Has this property had NO maintenance over the years? A water heater has NEVER needed replacement? A furnace has NEVER gone out? No bathrooms haven't been added? All of which require permits.
OR, have updates been done to this property without Permits, to avoid increases in assessment and without inspection because the work was done in a manner not to code? Are there working SMOKE DETECTORS in this property? Is this Apartment building safe and fit for human habitation? Are there too many occupants in this home for the square footage requirements?
We do not know!

Therein, lies another problem. The city of Cincinnati, unlike other major America cities does not have any sort of annual or even periodic, inspection of apartments! Yes, one 'registers' the property with the Auditor as a rental but there appears to be no inspections required to 'register' your apartment building" with the city! No annual fire department inspections to see if there are working smoke detectors. Nothing! You just 'register' your house as an apartment with the Auditor and that is it!

Cincinnati is woefully behind the times in this area and the council needs to address this issue immediately. In most cities, for example, WIRED IN smoke detectors are required by law on any 2 family or larger dwelling. That requires an electrical permit be pulled and that means a building inspector gets inside a building to check its condition and can see if the wiring is adequate.

So if this property is "typical", and based on some research I have done of other similar properties on Hsrrison Ave, it is. What changes do we need.

1) A more restrictive and less "broad" zoning classification for multi family, with zoning broken down to 2 family and 4 family zoning classification. Any apartment use greater that 4 family would require a Different Multi family classification and specific zoning variances and requirements for adequate off street parking spaces, dumpsters, ADA compliance and such.

The conversion of any existing single family to multi family should allowed be by zoning variance hearing only and then only after inspection and a certificate of occupancy is issued.

2) Any existing 'converted' single to multi family dwelling, previously grandfathered:

When such grandfathered building is ordered vacant by city inspections or has remained vacant for a period of 6 months it will revert back to single family zoning , AND may remain a multi family only after an inspection and proper permits are pulled and the property is brought up to current building code and safely standards and will result in the issuance of a "temporary" 5 yr multi family permit.

3) Raise the minimum apartment square footage from its current 150 square feet to 400 square feet for a single occupant.

4.) Annual fire inspections of any apartment dwelling in excess of 4 units, that inspection fee to be paid for by the owner and a REQUIREMENT to register that property as a rental with the auditors office. This change will save lives!

Westwood needs to petition the city to downzone Harrison Ave corridor to single family and there should be a moratorium on new multi family apartment construction and incentives for condo conversions for existing buildings.

If the above proposals were adopted we would see a reduction in illegal conversions, less density, less on street parking and a safer residential housing. Required inspections and fees charged for such would provide needed revenues for city government and offset the costs of enforcement. Property values would stabilize and illegal conversions reverted to single family would increase the city tax coffers as the neighborhood improves.

Thoughts and opinions , as always are appreciated. The purpose of this is to establish a dialog on the issue.


Kevin LeMaster said...

Isn't the property zoned RMX? If so, there's no way it would allow for 19 apartments unless the building was grandfathered in before the current zoning code was written.

RMX zoning only allows for up to three units, and anything else is nonconforming.

I believe what you're seeing as the "4-19 units" is not a zoning designation, but a classification used by the auditor to segment multi-family dwellings.

Paul Wilham said...

That could be Kevin, I drove by it today and it looked like 8 mailboxes on the main house and I think I saw some on the carriage (traffic was heavy, I couldnt stop). They have it declared as 6 units on the Auditor rental registration form. I would suspect ir is grandfathered since its been apartments at least since 99.