Jean Chalmers: Expand options for renting rooms in Gainesville

By Jean Chalmers / Special to The Gainesville Sun
Posted Jan 25, 2019 at 2:00 AM

Good citizens are grappling with the issues of how to save single-family neighborhoods, but still provide affordable housing to working folks.

We are at a point in the growth of our community where the value of land near the University of Florida is higher than the value of many of the older structures on that land. That makes it very attractive to developers that wish to tear down the old houses and build more living units to use the land more efficiently.

One approach is to allow ancillary housing structures on that valuable land, resulting in a better use of scarce space and saving much of the older housing stock. There seems to be a consensus that such small houses, which are in demand by young people in the market, should be allowed.

As always, the devil is in the details. Will the city be willing to lower minimum square footage standards to increase density and affordability? Will tiny houses only be allowed on owner-occupied lots or can they be allowed on absentee landlord lots? Will they have separate meters and how will extra parking be accommodated?

Another approach may be to allow owners of single-family homes to carve out a simple room that could be rented to a single person or a couple. Such a space, with a Pullman kitchen and a bathroom, would be very attractive to a single person or a couple.

About 50 years ago property owners began installing second kitchens in their homes in order to rent out a room or two to accommodate the new people coming into town during that period of rapid growth. There was a huge protest from the folks who lived in single-family neighborhoods.

They were afraid that single homes being turned into duplexes would change the character of their area with too many transient people accompanied by cars, noise and trash. As a result, in the 1970s the City Commission passed ordinances making it much more difficult for property owners to increase density in single-family neighborhoods.

One ordinance limits occupancy of a single-family residence to only three unrelated people. This was to prevent the spread of off-campus fraternity-type housing that brought late-night noise, front-lawn parking and a lack of maintenance into quiet neighborhoods, where most homeowners have nine-to-five jobs.

Another ordinance prohibited a second area in a single-family home from being turned into a place for the “preparation and storage of food.” This was to prevent single-family homes from being used as duplexes.

If the city would rescind its ordinance as it relates to second kitchens, I believe it would create an incentive for homeowners to prepare small rental units in unused space, thus creating more affordable housing. For many empty nesters, the income from such a rental may just make it possible to “age in place.” Of course such rentals should fall under the landlord-licensing purview of the city and the owners should pay the licensing fee and abide by off-street parking restrictions.

In addition, we need single-room occupancy buildings (SROs) for folks on limited incomes. Developers investing in Gainesville simply see the student market where four bedrooms with a private bath, shared living space, a kitchen and a laundry room is in demand. This is not an arrangement that serves working people well. They need a quieter, private space.

Some one-room efficiencies are provided by hotel chains that charge for cleaning and management services and are out of the price range for most working people. We need to encourage the development of simple buildings that supply good quality single rooms for folks who cannot afford more.

Most large cities in America have entire buildings that were dedicated to SROs but when they are converted to luxury apartments the homeless rates go up. Many such buildings were demolished in downtown Atlanta in preparation for the 1996 Olympics and the homeless rate soared at that time.

When I got off the boat in New York City with two suitcases, a small trunk and very little money, a kind longshoreman showed me the “room for rent” section of the New York Times and I soon had an 8×10 room in the apartment of a nice Swedish lady uptown. In Gainesville today, with all its restrictions, I would have been homeless.

Reprint from The Gainesville Sun
https://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20190125/jean-chalmers-expand-options-for-renting-rooms-in-gainesville

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