If city officials receive complaints about employee “bunkhouse” properties, they will move to enforce regulations that crack down on public nuisances like parking violations, excessive noise and unkempt yards.
But the Moab City Council is not planning to adopt any formal limits on the number of occupants who may live in each dorm-like residence, due to legal concerns and workload-related burdens that such a move could create.
Moab City Council member Mike Duncan said he’d like to strike a balance that avoids heavy- handedness, while addressing complaints about bunkhouse-related impacts on residential neighborhoods.
“None of us want to knock on the doors and say, ‘Hi, we’re the police, you’ve got to go,’” he said during the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 8. “It’s not going to happen. But I would like to see some sort of pressure put on landlords to maintain some sort of reasonable occupancy limits.”
Duncan suggested that city officials should come up with an occupancy-level formula and use it as a guideline, instead of a hard-and-fast rule.
“If we do nothing, it invites abuse,” he said.
Assistant Moab City Manager Joel Linares told the council that nuisance-related guidelines are much easier to enforce.
“We can send out code compliance (officials); they can take photos of the yard; they can document the number of cars … that stuff can be easily documented, and as we go through a civil procedure in order to remove the individuals for a violation, that — coupled with a business licensing requirement for landlords — you have a much easier burden of proof to meet,” he said.
CHANGE IN CODE SPARKED CONCERNS AMONG SOME RESIDENTS
In recent months, council members have heard from constituents who raised the alarm over bunkhouses in residential areas.
Mayor Emily Niehaus said the issue first arose after the city revised its code, replacing the word “family” with the word “household” to describe the allowed number of residential-type units in certain neighborhoods. In doing so, she said, the city sparked concerns from some residents about unlimited numbers of unmarried people living together in the same dwellings.
Linares said that court rulings precipitated the shift away from the use of the word “family.”
In other municipalities, he said, the housing codes included such a narrow definition of “family” that courts rejected the term. For instance, he said, some interpretations of the word actually prevented grandchildren from living with their grandparents.
“I know that we have this cultural narrative that we’re just changing and we can’t use that definition because of political correctness, but it’s probably not accurate as to the history of why the ‘family’ definition has gone away out of the code for the court’s analysis,” Linares said.
Occupancy limits are mainly governed under the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The related guidelines apply mostly to landlords to prevent discrimination in housing practices. But Linares said that some cities are now taking steps to implement them to curtail issues related to perceived overcrowding in their neighborhoods.
“There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to occupancy limits,” he said. “They’re tricky; they’re hard to enforce; and they’re hard to put out there.”
One main provision allows cities to limit occupancy to two occupants per bedroom, plus one. In other words, the number of occupants at a three-bedroom home would be limited to seven people.
But that rule can quickly collapse, Linares said, based on the size of each bedroom, or the size of a person who occupies a room.
“As they get smaller, the number can go up, and so it’s a really dicey proposition,” he said. “And it’s one that we need to narrow down on what the goal is in the occupancy restriction — why are we trying to pass a restriction, and what the effect that we’re trying to rein in — and see if this is the way we want to do it.”
Another guideline is based on square footage restrictions.
“The presumption is rebuttable by the person who is in there — the renter — which makes these really hard to enforce,” Linares said. “The legality side of it … if you actually start trying to evict people under these restrictions, the due process that’s required and the level of proof that’s required — it can get really intensive as that starts happening.”
Moab City Development Services Coordinator Sommar Johnson emphasized that occupancy limits would present a challenge on the enforcement front.
“Ultimately, to enforce that situation … if you receive a complaint, you are going to have to knock on the door and ask (about) the number of occupants that are in a home,” Johnson said. “And if they’re truthful in their answer, then you may be looking at evicting someone from their home because they exceed those occupancy limits.”
In the event that the council had pursued occupancy limits, Johnson said the strain it could place on city resources would become an issue.
“We have to be prepared to be able to knock on the door of individual homes and determine how many people are in there; whether or not they’re being truthful; if we have enough evidence to move forward to evict those individuals from their homes,” she said. “It’s a difficult topic.”
CONCERNS CENTER AROUND BUNKHOUSE SIDE EFFECTS
Duncan said the concerns he’s heard about bunkhouses in residential neighborhoods center around the side effects that come with dorm-style housing.
“I personally don’t care how many people live in there,” he said. “The whole point (from) all of the many letters we’ve gotten from residents about bunkhouses … everybody seems to agree that we don’t mind homes being used for that as long as parking doesn’t become an issue; (or) landscaping, trash and all of the exterior effects of it.”
Moab City Council member Rani Derasary said she believes that a “very big percentage” of complaints that residents have brought to the city can be pursued as nuisance-related violations.
But there are more complicated trends and future questions to consider, she said, such as health- and human rights-related concerns about overcrowding.
“We know this town is already expensive, so people already need to double up, but certainly on the bunkhouse front, just with our real estate prices being what they are, it’s getting more and more the situation where our homes are more viably sold to someone from out of town who has more money, or to say, a national or an international corporation, potentially for employees,” she said. “And so, one of my concerns … is I don’t want to see a situation where laborers — be they domestic or international brought in on visas — are put in a situation where there are really more of them in one structure than there should be.”
Moab City Council member Kalen Jones questioned whether the city’s code enforcement officials can address nuisance complaints under the current code, or if the pertinent language needs to be tightened up.
“I look at the code, and it seems like some if it is a little soft and some of it is not,” he said. “I realize that code enforcement is a process, and some of it is education and dialogue, and I’d rather do the least work and be the least heavy-handed as possible, and still take care of these situations.”
But some feedback is still needed, Jones said.
“And it seems like this dialogue we’ve had here tonight is helpful for that,” he said. “But I’m still not totally clear on if code enforcement has what they need and how it’s going with these situations that may take months to resolve.”
Moab City Manager David Everitt said that city officials will regroup and put together a statement that will reflect any potential deficiencies in code enforcement, or specific complaints that come to their attention. On another front, he said, officials are working through the process to implement a new code that requires landlords to obtain business licenses if they rent out properties where they don’t live.
Officials emphasize need to enforce anti-nuisance ordinances
“None of us want to knock on the doors and say, ‘Hi, we’re the police, you’ve got to go’ … It’s not going to happen. But I would like to see some sort of pressure put on landlords to maintain some sort of reasonable occupancy limits.”