Council moves to halt 'vinyl boxes' near UK

bfortune@herald-leader.comOctober 14, 2009 

The Urban County Council voted Tuesday to put a six-month moratorium on certain home additions, an action aimed at neighborhoods surrounding the University of Kentucky that are becoming primarily student housing.

The resolution goes on the council's Thursday night docket for first reading. It requires a second reading before it can be enacted.

The move comes amid growing controversy over small, World War II-era homes around UK that have attracted landlords who convert the houses into de facto apartment units for students.

"But it's not just about students; it's about these oversize additions in single-family neighborhoods that are rented to large numbers of people," creating all kinds of problems, said Third District Councilwoman Diane Lawless, who introduced the resolution.

If passed, it would ban renovations adding more than 25 percent to a home in the area. Homeowners asking for what would be deemed legitimate additions could apply by asking the council.

With the students living in those expanded homes come more garbage, more cars and more noise, Lawless said.

"The 60-year-old infrastructure is not built to handle the sewage problems and the storm water problems," Lawless said. "The effect is it causes neighborhoods to decline."

While the moratorium is targeted to the Third District, Councilman Kevin Stinnett said it's a "Lexington issue."

The moratorium would serve as a timeout to give the city, neighbors and the university a chance to come up with a long-term solution.

At its Tuesday work session, the council also directed Vice Mayor Jim Gray to form a task force to undertake a comprehensive review of the department of building inspection that checks such houses to see whether they are, in truth, operating more like boarding houses.

The city must find a way to bring UK to the table to help find solutions, Councilman Julian Beard said.

"I don't know how, but we've got to do it," he said.

The university plans to add 8,000 students in the next 10 years but little to no additional dorms, Beard said.

Councilman Doug Martin said UK's hands are tied when it comes to building more dorms because the General Assembly failed to grant it bonding authority.

Another ingredient in the housing conundrum that needs to be addressed, Martin said, is the effect of UK's ban on alcohol on campus several year ago. The dry campus accelerated students' flight to off-campus housing units where they could have parties and drink.

Also, the city must also revamp its zoning laws to clearly define what is a family and what's allowed in a single-family neighborhood, Martin said.

"That is a fundamental problem with our zoning." he said.

The Elizabeth Street area near UK is zoned for single families, yet landlords build large additions, commonly called vinyl boxes, and rent to 10 or 12 students.

"Twelve guys on the soccer team living together is not a family," Martin said. "If we cannot muster the political will to define what a family is, we're not going to solve the problem."

Martin proposed "anything more than four adults living together in a house is not a family."

Councilman George Myers asked what comes next to trigger action and solve the problems.

Lawless volunteered that she had a "long list" of steps the council could take with the support of Mayor Jim Newberry.

"We need to start debating solutions and not the problems," Martin said.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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