Flophouse follies

City Council looks to take on boardinghouses, bad city law

Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young has grown keenly aware of the ill effects of rooming houses after receiving endless complaints from constituents in Vine City and elsewhere on the southside.

Typically, the suspicious buildings annoy neighbors by having too many cars parked outside, lots of foot traffic at all hours and frequent ambulance visits.

"These businesses have helped contribute to the economic deterioration of intown neighborhoods," Young explains.

But he was as surprised as anyone to learn that many of the homes, which he believed to be operating illegally, actually hold permits from the city --permits, Young says, that never should have been issued.

Now he's hoping the city can shut the flophouses down — or at least keep more from opening.

Using information from a six-month study by the city planning department, Young is pushing City Council to weed out rooming houses that have managed to sneak into single-family neighborhoods across south Atlanta over the past two decades. The glitch was discovered when "an overzealous city planner" spotted an odd pattern in a list of addresses, Young says. In reviewing business permits granted by the city for "personal care homes," the employee noticed a wildly lopsided percentage of addresses in poorer sections of town.

A personal care home is defined by Georgia law as one that provides meals and help with such personal tasks as grooming and dressing to residents who are not bedridden, but is not licensed to provide nursing and medical services.

A hunch led to a zoning department survey, which confirmed that of the 279 personal care homes permitted by the city over the last 20 years, nearly 90 percent are concentrated in such gentrifying areas as Capitol View, Pittsburgh and Lakewood.

The reason for this anomaly is simple, according to Young, who chairs the council's zoning committee. While many of the personal care homes are legitimate, most are not — at least not by the usual definition. Rather, they are a mix of flophouses, nonaccredited old-folks' homes and investment properties that never should have been allowed to locate where they did.

Young hopes to revise the city zoning code to prohibit future rooming houses from masquerading as personal care homes.

The city hasn't yet determined how many of the permit-holders actually qualify as state-licensed personal care homes or how many occupants would be displaced if the homes are ultimately shut down. But Larry Keating, professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, says City Council should be mindful of actions that could turn more poor people out of their homes.

"There's a shrinking supply of affordable housing in the city," says Keating, who suggests that the city look at ways to encourage the addition of cheap units in areas that will lose rental housing.

Young expects to see some opposition to his plan from homeless activists and affordable-housing advocates, but says most of his fellow council members — who have to take their constituent homeowners' wishes into account — so far are backing the crackdown.

It won't be easy to get rid of many of the homes. They may not have broken any laws, says Councilwoman Carla Smith, whose southeast Atlanta district includes 39 addresses with personal care home permits.

"They'll probably be grandfathered in, so it's going to be a mess," she says.

To see how the city got in this fix, it's important to understand that multifamily housing and apartment buildings aren't allowed in areas with a single-family zoning designation. Folks who want to make extra money renting out rooms need to get a special permit to operate a boardinghouse — an unlikely bet because of neighborhood opposition.

But a poorly conceived city zoning ordinance allows someone to pay a one-time permit fee of $150 to open a personal care home — which, like a church or day care, can be located in any zoning designation — yet doesn't call for any follow-up on the city's part to make sure the applicant actually is operating a state-licensed home.

"The city has made huge errors in giving these permits," says Young. He says he's especially steamed that many permits were handed out by the planning department without public scrutiny or council review.

His first order of business is closing the loophole in the code by requiring that a permit to operate a personal care home be conditional upon the applicant subsequently earning a state license.

That would take care of future permits, but what about those already on the books?

A number of the older permits that the city granted are for properties that have since been abandoned or even demolished; if the city can prove that the business hasn't been in operation for at least a year, the property's zoning automatically reverts to its original single-family designation. Young says a casual survey he conducted by driving around his district revealed that many of the addresses on the list are vacant.

According to Young, the city also will have to cross-reference its list of existing permit-holders with the state Department of Human Resources to see which ones are officially licensed personal care homes — and then write legislation to crack down on those that are not.

Those that aren't state-licensed better watch their backs, says Councilwoman Smith. City officials will be watching for any slipups or code violations that would put the homes out of business.

That's fine by Young.

"It's not that rooming houses are to be prohibited," Young says. "But changing the city code will empower neighborhoods to monitor the appropriate use of buildings, where before these businesses were able to come in under the radar."