Three’s a crowd
Judge kills longstanding BR rule barring more than two unrelated roommates; city appeals
By Jeremy HarperPosted May 1, 2013
Since 1954, packing more than two unrelated roommates into the same rent house or apartment in Baton Rouge has been a violation of city-parish law that can land a property owner in court — even though a traditional family can crowd as many people as they want into similar dwellings.
That may be changing, thanks to a court ruling issued last week striking down the ordinance as unconstitutional. College students and others in neighborhoods like Southdowns who want to legally share an apartment or rent house with more than one other person who is not a blood relative may soon get that chance. The city-parish has said it plans to appeal the decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Steve Myers, a lawyer and realtor who ran for mayor last year, sued the city-parish over the law, saying it is an outdated rule that unfairly targets college students, young people and non-traditional families. Last week, a district court judge agreed and struck the ordinance down as unconstitutional.
Myers, who has been sued by the city-parish for violating the ordinance, argued that the rule unfairly discriminates against young people, who are most likely to live with multiple unrelated roommates. He said it also biased against non-traditional family units such as same-sex couples with children or an unmarried couple with foster children.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am for reasonable zoning and have no problems with restricting conduct as long as it applies to all — owner, renters, related, unrelated,” Myers said in an email. “What we have (now) is a witch hunt against young people, unrelated people and especially students, even if there is no offensive conduct.”
The rule is part of the Unified Development Code that sets zoning and development for East Baton Rouge Parish. It defines a family as “an individual or two or more people who are related by blood, marriage or legal adoption living together and occupying a single housekeeping unit with single culinary facility; or not more than two people, or not more than four persons provided the owner lives on the premises living together by joint agreement and occupying a single housekeeping unit with single culinary facilities on a nonprofit, cost-sharing basis.”
Parish attorney Mary Roper said the ordinance is enforced on a complaint basis. Some local property owners, however, have been known to limit the number of tenants to avoid running afoul with the city-parish.
Last week District Court Judge Janice Clark ruled that the family definition in the UDC was “unconstitutionally vague.”
“The court finds there is no rational basis for the definition of family in the code that furthers a state objective (that justifies) treating creative kinship networks and families such as same sex relationships, non-marital child birth, cohabitation, foster homes, and the like … (being) as common as they are today, with disparate treatment from the traditional nuclear family,” Clark wrote.
Roper said on Tuesday that the city-parish will appeal the ruling directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The appeal must occur within 30 days of the signing of the lower court’s judgment, which is expected this week.
The city-parish had singled out one of Myer’s properties on Cherrydale Avenue in Southdowns, which was occupied by several unrelated tenants.
Clark wrote in her opinion that the Cherrydale family showed it was “an interdependent fictive familial unit” and that “evidence is overwhelming that this non-traditional family, these graduates and contractors, have not caused a decrease in property values. Quite the contrary, it was conclusively shown that the property has increased in its value significantly.”
Myers, who says he does not ask renters if they are related, said the complaints are less about problems with his properties and more about “1950s rhetoric” from some neighborhood residents.
“I have been in this business for over 20 years and have had less than a handful complaints of any kind,” Myers said.