Landlords in Bowling Green, Ohio are suing the city over its limitation on renting to more than three unrelated tenants regardless of the size of the property. There are no such occupancy limits on families.
Landlords claim the ordinance violates their constitutional rights to do what they want with their properties, and they argue that the punishment for violations is excessive. The ordinance carries criminal penalties of $500 per day that can exceed the value of the property.
Those landlords participating in the lawsuit own properties with more than three bedrooms and ample parking spaces for additional tenants and represent 161 single-family properties. In at least one case, the owner was told that the property was “grandfathered”, but the city allegedly does not track which properties are exempt.
Zoning ordinances limiting unrelated tenants are common, especially in college towns. However, the intent of these statutes is not always clear. Often, they are the result of neighbor complaints after raucous college parties. The Bowling Green landlords’ representative, 1851 Center Executive Director Maurice Thompson, points out in a post that there are other ways to control rowdy behavior without dictating the relationships between occupants. “There is no coherent reason why four missionaries should be prohibited from occupying a large six bedroom house, even as an unruly family of eight lives in a smaller home next door,” he explains.
Unfortunately for landlords, similar legal challenges have failed. A judge in Philadelphia ruled in 2015 that the city was entitled to limit unrelated renters in primarily single-family neighborhoods if the intention of the zoning ordinance was to establish areas with more permanent residents. College students, the judge wrote, create a “transient” element which the city had the right to regulate. Thompson calls that logic social engineering.
It’s important to note, however, that not every city points to transiency as a reason for occupancy restrictions on singles. Some say the ordinances are needed to limit disorderly conduct, quell parking disputes, or for “health and safety” — a catchall phrase that relates to anything from neighbor complaints to overcrowding. Citing health and safety concerns as a reason for limiting an entire renter demographic appears to contradict rules that require landlords to accommodate large families — by allowing more children than bedrooms, for instance.
Implementing these ordinances can be tricky for landlords. The definition of “family” typically is vague. For instance, in Bowling Green, there is an apparent contradiction in language that throws into question whether cousins are family members. Ordinances that require couples to be legally married to qualify for housing don’t account for the fact that landlords are not allowed to ask about marital status in rental applications.
While landlords have had little success in the courts thus far, that’s not to say that the tide won’t turn. After all, the times — and housing demands — are changing. Lawsuits aside, landlords may have cause to demand changes in zoning laws. When it comes to roommates, three seems an arbitrary number that has little to do with the size of a specific rental property. City officials everywhere are struggling to find options for affordable housing. Older renters and retirees are becoming more commonplace. Many single-family neighborhoods near universities are now subject to multi-use and commercial applications and are no longer sleepy enclaves. Maybe the time has come for cities to rethink outdated zoning ordinances.
A single voice has little power when it comes to effecting change. The best strategy for landlords is to join forces, whether that’s supporting legal advocates like 1851 Center or a local landlord association willing to go to bat for rental property owners.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.