Ward 1 and 2 councilmembers Connie Fitch-Taylor and Kelley Griswold expressed concern Tuesday night over single-family housing being developed and used as student housing in Auburn’s northwest neighborhoods, causing residents to be pushed out.
Through a loophole in housing regulations, developers are constructing, for example, five-bedroom, five-bathroom houses in single-family neighborhoods and selling them as student housing. Since they are single-family homes by definition, they are legal in these neighborhoods. In northwest Auburn, specifically in Wards 1 and 2, some residents who have lived in the area for years are having to move because of this.
Ward 1 Council member Connie Fitch-Taylor said the housing issue has personally affected her. She said one of her neighbors has decided to sell his house due to student housing, and her other neighbor is an elderly lady who doesn’t want to live near students.
“This neighbor and this neighbor, I’m living between them, so if they sell, that forces me to sell,” Fitch-Taylor said. “My main concern is where am I going to go that I can afford to live in Auburn. So, you’re putting this development up around me, which is forcing neighbors out of the community simply because of student housing.”
Mayor Ron Anders said he is very concerned about what’s happening to Fitch-Taylor’s neighborhood.
Citizen Elizabeth McCrary told the Council that she has relatives, including a cousin, who live on Frazier Street off of Bragg Avenue.
“She worked hard to pay for that property,” McCrary said. “She’s now retired. When we’re talking about students, hey, what retiree … would want to live among a bunch of students?”
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In an effort to distinguish between homes actually occupied by single families and those built for students, the city is currently reviewing new regulations that will define five-bedroom, five-bath houses as “academic dwelling units” and prohibit them in single-family neighborhoods.
Ward 2 Councilmember Kelley Griswold expressed concern over the five-bedroom, five-bath houses “masquerading” as single-family homes and called for the city to move faster on the academic dwelling unit regulations.
“We’re dragging this thing out so long that they’re all going to be built before anybody has an opportunity to shut any of them down,” Griswold said. “We have neighborhoods in Ward 1 and Ward 2 that are being negatively impacted, single-family neighborhoods that are being negatively impacted because we have not gotten around to fixing this problem.”
City Planning Director Forest Cotten and City Manager Jim Buston said the new regulations take awhile to develop because enough time must be allowed to give the planning commission, developers and the community a chance to give feedback. Buston said there are people in the community that are in favor of the developments and others that are not.
“It’s already written, but it’s not just a matter of staff writing it, it’s a matter of vetting it with multiple stakeholders who have vested interest,” Cotten said of the regulations. “I’m telling you, if you don’t vet this as much as you possibly can before it gets to you, we’ll all be sorry.”
Griswold said he viewed the role of the staff being to tell the Council how to get things done, not why they can’t get things done.
Cotten said he did miss the deadline by three days for getting the regulations to the Planning Commission for their meeting next week. This moved the process back by one month.
Ward 8 Council member Tommy Dawson said he thought Cotten and the city staff were moving as fast as they could, and he resented Griswold’s attitude toward them.
Fitch-Taylor said she didn’t think Griswold was attacking anyone, but they were frustrated because the issue is affecting her district and starting to affect Griswold’s.
Dawson said he understood and nobody cares more about the west side of Auburn than he does.
“I lost blood over there in that area,” Dawson said. “I fought the crack-cocaine battle ... to make it the way it is over there today.”
Anders said the issue was complicated and didn’t really have a simple solution to it.
“We love students,” Anders said. “Students are the lifeblood of this community in many ways. But, I believe it’s a best practice, it’s a best practice that students and normal members of our community don’t live right next door to each other.”
Several citizens also addressed the Council over the issue.
Ryan Casadaban, who has developed some of the houses under scrutiny in northwest Auburn, said building student housing in these neighborhoods follows the zoning code.
“There were some comments about the different houses that are being built, and I think the term masquerading as single-family was used, and that’s just not what’s happening,” Casadaban said. “This is not a new phenomenon that people are acting surprised that students live near the University now, which is baffling to me. … This idea that people are going around and skirting the rules and cheating and doing all this stuff is just completely inaccurate.”
The housing that developers are building for students is currently legal.
“They have done what’s allowable, and we’ve been trying to fight to figure out how to kind of close that loophole if you will to protect family neighborhoods,” Griswold said.
AJ Harris, who is a customer service representative with the city, said he thought the conversation was overlooking how the student developments came into the neighborhoods in the first place.
“I think a lot of people want to put the blame on the city and on the city personnel for missing out on that,” Harris said, adding that citizens have a responsibility as well. “I have a cousin that’s been offered to pay his mortgage off, move him into another house mortgage free. Who wouldn’t take that? I think we have to look at that aspect of it and hold people accountable as a community together, and then we can kind of address those concerns together with the city.”
Harris said he doesn’t think people who are selling their properties are thinking about how they affect their neighbors, and if they choose to sell their houses, there is only so much the city can do.
“We need to start having those conversations to educate the people, ‘Hey, when you sell your house, sell your property next to me, this is how it affects me,’” Harris said. “‘Now, I have this building coming in that’s pushing me out.”
Another citizen, Ken Busby, said that even though constructing the student houses is legal, it isn’t necessarily right.
“Taking away these people’s houses and affordable housing in Auburn is hurting communities,” Busby said. “It’s deteriorating the lifestyle of people in those communities and as a City Council, you need to pay attention to it and fix it and keep these people in their houses, keep these people in their communities. That’s what Auburn’s about, it’s about family, it’s about togetherness. Mayor, you ran on it, we’re in this together, right? So let’s not exclude anybody.”
The planning commission is scheduled to review the regulation on Jan. 10 and the Council will then decide on it in February.
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