Council Supports Hawthorn Neighborhood Rental Prohibition in 3-2 Vote

Monday, January 29, 2018, 5:51 pm
By: 
Jessy Gregg

Above: One of the walking trails in the Hawthorn Neighborhood, winding between backyards.

In a 3-2 vote, East Lansing’s City Council has voted to allow another East Lansing neighborhood to fall under an “overlay district’ that prohibits the issuance of additional rental licenses.

At the January 23 meeting of City Council, Mayor Mark Meadows, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann, and Councilmember Ruth Beier voted to support the Hawthorn neighborhood’s petition to create an overlay district. Councilmembers Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens voting against, saying too many areas of East Lansing were seeing rental license restrictions.

The 3-2 vote by Council enacted Ordinance 1418, designating the Hawthorn Neighborhood an R-0-1 Rental Overlay District. This prohibits all new rental licenses within the Hawthorn subdivision, although it does not affect the one active license which has already been granted.

The Hawthorn Neighborhood is located north of Saginaw Street between Coolidge Road and Harrison Road, as shown on this map from the City:

The community includes 72 single-family homes constructed in the 1970s and 1980s as a planned community.

At the Public Hearing on the matter, Cindy Atkinson, the Hawthorn Subdivision Homeowners Association President, described her neighborhood to Council as having a unique, park-like feeling due to the fact that the builder included 25,000-square-feet of walking trails that wind through the neighborhood. These plus many open common spaces are meant to compensate, Atkinson explained, for the close proximity of the homes built on small lots.

“Because our homes were built very close together,” Atkinson told Council, the impact of rental properties can be especially pronounced.”

Jo-Ann VandenBergh, who has lived in the neighborhood for 37 years, and who bought her home directly from the builder, also addressed the Council. She said that when she purchased her home, she understood that the neighborhood was never intended to permit rentals, but that the proper paperwork had not been submitted to the City. This fact was discovered when one of the property owners applied for, and was granted, a rental license.

Below: A street in the Hawthorn neighborhood.

Following guidelines set out by City Council in 2004, a group of Hawthorn residents recently circulated a petition which was signed, as required by the overlay law, by over two-thirds of the residents. It was then submitted to the City Clerk and verified by the Assessor.

The overlay petition was considered by East Lansing’s City Council at its December 13 meeting. Planning Commission failed to recommend the ordinance to City Council with a vote of 6-2 against, with Commissioner Andrew Quinn recusing himself due to the fact that he lives in the Hawthorn neighborhood and was a signatory of the petition.

Planning Commissioners Kathy Boyle and Don Davis voted in favor of the Hawthorn overlay district. Commissioners Dan Bollman, John Cahill, Hannah Grall, Rory Neuner, Leo Sell, and Chris Wolf voted against. The primary argument against approval was that, while there is a lot of rental property within the City of East Lansing, there are not a lot of rentals which would be appropriate for families.

This sentiment was echoed by Councilmember Draheim during the January 23 City Council meeting. There she said, “East Lansing needs rental property that is single family housing, too. I hear it all the time from families [that] move in here for jobs. They aren’t ready to purchase. It’s very hard to find single family housing that’s rental available.”

Councilmember Stephens agreed with Draheim, and pointed to recent graduates or graduate students as people who might want to live in an East Lansing house without purchasing a home.

Below: One of the many walking paths in the Hawthorn Neighborhood.

Councilmember Ruth Beier shared her experience living in a Rental Overlay district, specifically in the Oakwood Neighborhood, just west and south of Hannah Community Center. During the economic downturn, she said, some of her neighbors lost their homes to foreclosure because they couldn’t sell them and were also unable to rent them because of the overlay restriction.

Beier nevertheless indicated her support of the Hawthorn neighborhood’s effort, saying, “Our code allows these ordinances and it allows the neighborhoods to choose them, and the process they go through to choose them is to get enough signatures, which this neighborhood did.”

Councilmember Erik Altmann also expressed the view that if neighborhoods follow the law and obtain over two-thirds support from property owners, Council should approve the request. He said, “It’s manifestly unfair to be having a discussion about the underlying policy now, after they went through this. The time to have this discussion is not when we have an overlay before us.”

In practice, it is not unusual for City Council to engage in policy discussions when neighborhood petitions come before them, such as has happened with the ongoing debate about residential parking permits in the Chesterfield Hills neighborhood.

Below: Common space between backyards in the Hawthorn Neighborhood.

The procedure for adopting Rental Overlay districts was developed during Mayor Mark Meadows’ previous round of service on City Council. At the January 23 meeting, he explained, “We moved to let neighborhoods decide what they wanted to look like.”

Meadows said that the rental overlay policy was challenged by landlords at the time it was adopted but that it was upheld by the courts. “I’m satisfied that the underlying policy remains the same and that it is a good policy,” he said. “I don’t have any problem voting for this." Meadows said that there are many apartments available for rental in the City's Northern Tier.