A Proposed Resolution Regarding Rental Registries

I have been concerned for some time about certain unscrupulous landlords who disregard the safety of their tenants by packing as many people as they can into a boarding house situation. The living conditions for the people renting rooms (or portions of rooms) in these chopped up homes are often unsafe, and the strain on the sewer, trash, traffic and other city systems can have a potentially big negative impact on neighbors.

At our February 4th work session, I will be asking that the council authorize our attorneys to draft a resolution encouraging the state legislature to allow municipalities to maintain rental property registries (the state government currently does not allow this). I would not want to register the renters, but instead focus on the owners of properties – who I believe are the ones truly responsible for creating these conditions. This would be a first step toward getting our arms around Doraville’s boarding house problem. You can read the item I put together for the packet here. This would be the first step in a long-term effort to get our legislators to take this seriously.

If you agree with me that this is an important issue, please contact the mayor and other council members to voice your supportthe contact info for the mayor and council can be found here.

Finding a Fix for Boarding Houses

Edit (12/31/2018): Since writing this, I’ve talked with the city’s attorney, and have a better understanding of what our issues with the state are. He believes that we can craft an ordinance that will be defensible in Georgia. The reason that Georgia cities have not crafted legislation up to this point seems to be that there was a lawsuit against Marietta in 2006 which went to the GA Supreme court and that Marietta lost. Since then, most cities have not tried to find ways to get around that court ruling. Cities in other states have not had this restriction.

The thing we might need or want from the legislature is enabling legislation indicating that the city is authorized to maintain a rental registry. The state passed similar legislation related to a foreclosure registry several years ago. Based on this information, I believe Doraville will be able to work on something enforceable in 2019, whether we get the state’s help or not.


As an elected official in Doraville, one of my frustrations has been limitations the state places on municipalities when trying to regulate single-family rental homes. I think that everyone needs a safe place to live – unfortunately, in our city, I have seen a number of disinvested landlords who purchased property cheap during the recession, and who have chopped up those properties to turn them into (illegal) mini-apartment buildings in order to maximize their returns.

Cities in Georgia are not allowed to require licenses from landlords who rent out single family homes like they would for apartment owners; and are not allowed to inspect rentals before people move in in order to make sure they are a safe environment. While the 4th amendment provides certain important rights about who can enter a person’s home – I think there are ways to respect people’s constitutional rights without giving landlords free reign to provide substandard living accommodations to their tenants.

This has been a long-standing problem in Doraville. There are suspected boarding houses with unsafe living conditions sprinkled throughout the city. We only learn of them when a tenant invites a city official into the house, or if there is some disturbance that requires police involvement. In late November, one of these homes was discovered in our city when a code enforcement officer was invited in. They found that the landlord had split up the house into unsafe cubicles, and created what is essentially a massive fire hazard. The home has been declared unsafe for human habitation, the tenants were removed, and the owner is in the process of bringing it up to code.   

Here are some photos from that incident:

This year, the state legislature is going to be considering regulation of short term rentals (AirBnB, VRBO), at the request of some of the richer and more tourist-oriented cities in the state. I have encouraged all of the state senators and representatives that I know to also  consider allowing for some regulation of regular rental of single-family homes.

There is a limit to what the city will be able to accomplish on this issue without the state’s help. If you think this is an important issue, I encourage you to contact our State Representatives (Scott Holcomb for Northwoods and Oakcliff; Mike Wilensky for Tilly Mill & Winters Chapel Hill) and State Senator (Sally Harrell) to encourage them work on this at the state level.

Fireworks (Not so Silent Night)

Many people in Doraville have always celebrated big holidays with fireworks and firecrackers.  In the past, it was usually just the big 3 (New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year, and 4th of July) where people lit up the night.  This could be annoying, but it was also fairly limited. There were state laws against personal use of fireworks, so it was not too difficult to regulate.

In 2016, the state legislature changed this, however, by legalizing all fireworks and firecrackers and enacting legislation that allowed them to be set off all year long. In 2018, they restricted the ability of local municipalities to set their own laws about fireworks ( they do allow some limited city regulation through noise ordinances). You can read a handout the state published about this change here: https://georgia.gov/blog/2018-06-28/fireworks-know-law-use-caution-and-be-courteous

These laws set the stage for Christmas Eve in Doraville this year, which was ridiculously noisy going late into the night. This video from Northwoods illustrates a little bit of what it was like:

Video Courtesy of Mitchell Cave

Doraville is in the process of updating its noise ordinance to make sure it covers fireworks to the extent the state will let us. That said, I want to caution anyone who thinks this is going to be a cure-all for late night Christmas Eve fireworks. Here are some issues to be aware of:

  • The Doraville police received many calls about noise related to fireworks over Christmas and Christmas Eve. Finding the source of the complaints and then responding to them takes time. By the time the officers locate the source, the fireworks may have stopped
  • Doraville can pass regulations within its city limits, but that does not affect what people do in Chamblee and unincorporated Dekalb. A lot of the places with the loudest displays were outside our jurisdiction
  • No matter what our laws are in the city, fireworks are cheap and easily available for people all over Georgia. Doraville might try to send one message, but the state is sending another (much more permissive) one.

This problem is much bigger than Doraville, and has been driven by state legislators who care more about the fireworks lobby than they do about the safety of children or peace and quiet in neighborhoods.

If this is an important issue to you, I encourage you to contact our State Representatives (Scott Holcomb for Northwoods and Oakcliff; Mike Wilensky for Tilly Mill & Winters Chapel Hill) and State Senator (Sally Harrell) to encourage them work on this at the state level. Until something changes there, I think any actions the city of Doraville takes will be of limited effectiveness at best. With that said, I will continue to work with other council members on sensible laws around noise and nuisance within the city to fix things where we can.

Recap: Doraville Council’s November Work Session

On November 14, Doraville City Council held a work session to discuss possible changes to our ordinances and fee schedules. The topics covered included:

Parking in Residential Neighborhoods: this was a follow up discussion related to code enforcement. We currently have codes on the books that restrict “commercial” vehicles. It is difficult to define what vehicle is or is not used for a business. We are considering a change that puts vehicles into different classes, and prevent certain types (dump trucks, tow trucks, heavy construction equipment) from parking in residential neighborhoods at all. Given the nature of our neighborhood, and the fact that most homes do not have garages, we are considering a allowing limited number of vehicles with ladders attached to be parked in driveways – none may be parked on the street. The goal is to make what is allowed and not allowed in our residential neighborhoods much clearer so that code enforcement does not have to try to interpret fuzzy concepts like whether a van with a ladder is “commercial” or not. I expect a draft of a new ordinance sometime early next year. I’m glad that the city is finally working on this – we need better written codes in order to be able to successfully enforce them.  View the presentation here.

Permit Fees: Doraville has run into some complaints from developers that our permit fees and processes are out of line with those of our neighboring cities. Our city staff is in the process of comparing what we charge compared to what other cities charge. The end goal is to have permitting fees pay the cost of administering the process, which is the same goal of other cities. I believe we should look at what successful cities like Brookhaven and Chamblee are doing and mirror their processes as much as possible. Staff is going to report back to us next year after doing more research. View the presentation here.

Zoning Updates: The Planning Commission and Community Development Director have been working for several months on an update to our zoning. Our codes are currently very difficult to read, and that makes it harder for a business trying to open in our city, or a developer interested in a project, to know whether or not they would require a conditional use permit. The zoning code would be moved into a grid format where you can easily see whether something is permitted by right or needs a conditional use permit. I fully support this, as it should make Doraville an easier place to do business in. View the presentation here.

 

You can watch the full meeting here, and download the agenda packet here.

 

Banquet Hall/VR Arcade – Conditional Use Permits

At our December meeting, the city council voted to approve a conditional use permit for a new banquet hall in the Treasure Island shopping center. The woman opening this business got her start renting furniture to people throwing parties in their backyards (quinceañeras and other birthdays, weddings, etc). She said that many people would ask her about renting space, too, because their yards were too small to accommodate the party. Under our C-2 zoning, banquet halls require review by the Planning Commission and must be approved by City Council. That’s why we reviewed this application.

When the banquet hall came before the Planning Commission, they voted 3 to 1 to deny the Conditional Use Permit. Their reasoning was mainly over concern about the noise the business might bring to the area if people spilled out into the parking lot or there was loud music in the facility itself. Some concerns were also brought up about the lack of any kitchen or cleaning facilities.

When Council reviewed the request for a Conditional Use Permit, we considered the same things – but it was pointed out that there is already a jazz/salsa club and a loud restaurant next door. Not only that, this business would be required to follow Doraville’s noise ordinances just like any other operator in the city. When these points were brought up – along with the fact that there is a 60 foot buffer between the shopping center and the closest houses, my noise concerns were answered.

Although they plan to have mostly disposable cups, plates, etc, as well as will cater any food that is provided for parties; the fact that they did not have a place to clean dishes or wash things up bothered me. We did put a condition on their permit that they must have a cleaning sink (apart from anything in the restrooms). They could use this to get water for a mop; to clean dishes; etc.

Several people spoke in favor of this – and no member of the public spoke against it. One of the biggest arguments in favor is that there is a need for this kind of venue in the city. People have loud parties at their houses, and then the police get called on them. This gives them an option to have a celebration without risking annoying their neighbors.

With my concerns addressed, I did not see any reason deny the CUP, and voted with the majority to approve it. The vote was 5 to 1 in favor. The vote against the banquet hall was Pam Fleming.

At the same meeting, we voted to approve a Conditional Use Permit for a Virtual Reality arcade. The planning commission had unanimously recommended that council approve the CUP, and the council unanimously approved it.

You can download the packet that includes the CUP Application here. I will update this with a link to the video of the meeting once it’s posted.

The Planning Commission meeting with this applicant can be viewed here.

Amendments & Referenda – Georgia 2018 Ballot

It’s election season again, and early voting has opened up in Dekalb County. You can cast your ballot at the locations listed here. You can also request an absentee ballot from the registrar’s office by filling out this form and sending it to  voterreg@dekalbcountyga.gov – that’s what I did earlier this month. I like the option of a paper ballot, and also knowing that my vote will be counted even if something prevents me from making it to my polling place on November 6. Just be sure to remember you need to use two stamps when you send the ballot back to the county.

This year, there are several amendments and referendums on the ballot that you may not be familiar with. I’m going to assume that you know what individuals or party-tickets you’re voting for. The amendments and referendums are probably less straightforward, though, so I wanted to at least share my thoughts on each. Some of them will have a direct impact on Doraville. You can view the full text of the amendments, along with the list of candidates on the ballot at your Georgia Voter Page.

Amendment 1: A percentage of tax funds from sporting good sales would go into the “Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund.” This is a fund that – in addition to conservation and water safety uses – could be spent on parks and trails in municipalities (like Doraville!). I voted yes and hope you do too!

Amendment 2: Creates a statewide business court. This is a specialized court that would give businesses a venue to take complicated disputes. The cases would be presided over by judges who will specialize in technical business issues. The devil is in the details, because the specifics of how judges are chosen and how the court will be paid for have not been identified by the legislature. That will all be decided next year if this amendment passes. I’m not a huge fan of voting for judges, so the fact that they will be appointed does not bother me.  In general, I think the addition of this court will help make Georgia a stronger venue for business from around the world, so I voted yes.

Amendment 3: This amendment is being sold as a  “win” for conserving Georgia’s forests, but actually weakens conservation incentives and gives big landowners a tax break. I voted no.

Amendment 4: Enables “Marsy’s Law,” which would require authorities to notify victims of crimes when their accusers are up for parole, etc. I voted yes

Amendment 5: This is a law that allows a large school district in a county to authorize a SPLOST referendum without getting the permission of smaller districts in the same county. The reason that this is on the ballot is that sometimes a school district with a minority of children in the county can hold the decision hostage unless the larger district agrees to give them an unfair proportion of the revenue. I voted “yes”

Referendum A: This law would cap property taxes in the city of Atlanta only. Every year, the max that property tax in the city would be allowed to go up would be 2.6%. I don’t support giving the people of Atlanta a special deal that does not apply to the other people in the state. I also don’t support the state getting that involved in the details of one city’s tax situation. I voted “no.”

Referendum B: Provides a tax exemption for nonprofit homes for mentally disabled people – even if they are financed by for-profit businesses. This exemption already exists, but the language about how they can be financed needs to be clarified. Under this law, nonprofit organizations may set up Limited Liability Corporations to finance these homes and still receive the tax credit. I voted “yes.”

Special Doraville Election: Would allow restaurants in Doraville to serve alcohol starting at 11am on Sundays. I voted yes!

 

Notes from Doraville Council’s October Extended Work Session

At its extended October work session, Doraville’s council discussed the following important issues.

– Creating a citywide traffic calming policy

– Code Enforcement Challenges and Improvements

– Finalizing the list of SPLOST projects

Watch the entire video here.

Here’s my perspective on each:

Traffic Calming Policy:

I was surprised when I joined the council early this year to discover that the city had no written policy about how residents of a street could request traffic calming measures if they thought their street was unsafe. There had been some discussion about creating something a few years before, but it had been dropped and never picked up again.

I think giving residents a clearly stated process for initiating some action on traffic complaints on their street is important. I first introduced this issue in a May 21st work session, and then did work behind the scenes with the city manager to work towards a first draft of a new process. When our new Public Works Director (Larry King) came onboard, he further refined the process, which was presented to the council in this October session.

A concern of mine would be that if we limited participation in the traffic calming petitions so that only property owners on a street had a say, that might make  getting a majority of homes on the street to sign a petition an insurmountable hurdle. We came up with a process that will solicit input from all residents of a street, but that will also survey the property owners. If a property owner does not respond, then the response from the person living in the house will be prioritized..

A few people in the meeting questioned allowing to give renters a voice, or why we should have a process at all (they felt the city should be measuring street safety based on number of crashes). In the end, though, it appeared there was a consensus to have a clear process for residents who want traffic calming installed on their street to petition the city. I expect staff to roll something out very soon based on the feedback we’ve provided.

You can view the presentation that Mr. King shared, showing the proposed process, here.

Code Enforcement

The code enforcement part of the meeting was very interesting. We learned from our code enforcement officers that many of our ordinances are poorly written, and hard to enforce. With a few changes, we could make some big improvements in enforceability and reduce the time they spend doing busy-work. Most notably there is an ordiance limiting “business vehicles” that has the officers digging into whether or not the vehicle is used in a business. Code enforcement is spending a huge amount of time trying to track down whether a business is being run out of the home, rather than just focusing on vehicles that are not in compliance.

We instructed staff to come up with a more clear-cut ordinance that banned certain types of vehicles from being parked in residential neighborhoods (semi-trucks, dump trucks, school busses, etc), but excluded other vehicles that could be used for personal or business use (pick-up trucks, vans, etc).

We learned that the majority of code enforcement visits are for trash left out on the street. Council has instructed the city manager to include curbside pick-up of bulk items in the sanitation RFP that she is sent out. If we are able to do that, it will free up the code enforcement officers to focus more on business-districts in the city. My only concern with the curbside pick-up is the pricetag. Council Member Koontz made the good point that we’ll need to factor the time savings from dealing with other complaints into that price.

If we are able to streamline the focus of the code enforcement officers, we should free them up to spend more time in our business districts – which is sorely needed. Council Member Koontz stated, “It’s a starting point,” which is an understatement. I am glad we’re finally starting to take a second look at the way these codes are written, though.

You can view the packet our city manager shared with us here.

SPLOST

Finally, we went over the list of SPLOST projects a second time, and talked at a high level about what projects we would prioritize. I think the council generally thought that we should be prioritizing any projects that have already been started, as well as projects that have been already promised or previously budgeted.

Because of language in the ballot measure we voted on to approve SPLOST, Doraville can only use SPLOST money as it comes in. This slows down the time it takes to complete projects, and means we can’t take on as much at one time.

I hope the council will consider a future ballot measure that our citizens would vote on which  would allow us to get a bond based on expected SPLOST revenue. It’s too late to do this in 2018, but hopefully we’d be able to get it done by 2019. I fear that if we let too much time pass without doing this, we’re never going to maximize the value of our SPLOST money.

Overall, it was a good work session. I feel like the council is finally starting to do some work. Watch the whole video hereDownload the full work session packet here.

Inconsistent, Outdated Zoning is Holding Doraville Back

There is a question I have heard many times over the past year – variations of wanting to know why Doraville has not seen the same kind of development that has blossomed in other nearby communities.  Ultimately, there are lots of reasons – only some of which have been in the city’s control. That said, there are some mistakes the city made that I hope it can rectify. One of these is the inconsistent zoning along Buford Highway.

In 2014, the city was evaluating a new zoning tool (called the “Livable Community Form Based Code”) to use for re-zoning Downtown Doraville and Assembly. The code was meant to encourage more walkable mixed-use development (like what is being built in Chamblee along Peachtree Industrial).

Somehow, a few people in the Northwoods neighborhood (where I live), just south of Buford Highway, got the idea that this re-zoning effort applied to our neighborhood. Let me be absolutely clear: this re-zoning was slated for the commercial properties along Buford Highway only – not Northwoods. Rather than try to educate the public about the misinformation, however, the council at that time made the decision to include the North part of Buford Highway in the new T-5 Livable Communities Code zoning, and to leave the South part of Buford Highway with the old C-2 zoning that encourages strip mall development and no residential.

While this may have seemed like a good compromise, I believe the city shot itself in the foot by only re-zoning the North side of Buford Highway, and leaving the South side to languish with a code that was mainly written in the 1960s and 70s. The result is that we have been sending mixed messages to developers, and indicating that we’re not a serious player in the region. Who is going to want to spend a lot of time and money building a mixed use community on one side of Buford Highway when it will face strip malls and parking lots on the opposite side of the street? How do you build a community that way?

In our most recent work session discussion about Downtown Doraville, I brought up the fact that the city cannot credibly redevelop its downtown when it has half of its main street zoned using an outdated code from the 60s. We can’t keep making bad compromises and then wondering why we aren’t seeing the development we want. It’s time for us to show leadership and do the things we know are best for the city.

September 2018 Work Session: Storm Water & Downtown Doraville

At our retreat in August, the council agreed to hold one stand-alone work session each month. These sessions are where we plan to talk about big picture issues; to learn the ins and outs of particular plans or city functions; and are a way for staff to get some general direction from the council about the projects they’re working on. The goal of having these extra work sessions is to get out of reactive mode and become a more proactive city.

On Thursday, September 24th, we had the first of these meetings – our discussion covered storm water planning and the development of Doraville’s Downtown.

Downtown Doraville is exciting to discuss. I think everyone on the council agrees that they want to get this project off the ground. Councilwoman Koontz has written about it already – I mostly agree with her assessment. In that essay, Koontz talks about courage – it’s the courage to invest in our city and believe it will succeed. Getting this done and taking the many small steps it will take to make this happen is one of the key reasons I ran for city council.

Storm water is probably the topic that is harder for people to get excited about – but it’s very important. Much of our infrastructure was built in the 50s and is at the end of its lifespan. For many years, we’ve made little patches here and there, but because we didn’t fix underlying problems, it means we have even bigger repairs (and repair costs) looming over us. The challenge if we don’t get this right is that we can see increased flooding and sinkholes – so it’s an issue everyone should care about.

At the same time we have this huge need, we’ve kept the storm water mitigation fees we charge all residential property owners in the city at the same low rate of $48 a year since we took over responsibility of storm water from the county. We are still waiting for a full list of storm water infrastructure projects that are needed and what the cost is, but the expectation I take away from the meeting is that the list is going to be more expensive than the revenue we take in.

The council talked about different strategies for raising fees (basing it on the square footage of impervious structures on a property, basing it on the size of a lot, looking at other strategies like bonds). Whatever we do, there will be more discussion of it ahead of next year’s budgeting process. I do not think continuing to bandage over a bad situation is the way to go, however.

Additional Materials

 

Doraville Joins Welcoming America’s One Region Initiative

At its August 20th meeting, Doraville’s city council passed a resolution supporting Welcoming America’s  “One Region Initiative.” This is a group of local government entities around metro Atlanta who have agreed to pursue policies that  support immigrants and  refugees who live in our communities. This is the first regional welcoming plan in the USA, and I’m proud that Doraville is a founding member.

By joining this initiative, Doraville has committed to work towards inclusion – by doing things like providing municipal information in multiple languages, providing opportunities for civic engagement, and doing general civic outreach to immigrant and under-represented communities.

There were a couple of votes against joining this initiative – they boiled down to two arguments from opposite ends of the spectrum:

  1. “Doraville is already a very welcoming place, so there is no need to join this initiative”

  2. “Doraville has not done enough work to support immigrant communities, and joining this initiative would not change that. “

From my perspective, these arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. If Doraville is a welcoming place, then we should be actively pursuing opportunities like the One Region Initiative. If we aren’t doing enough today, then we should welcome the One Region Initiative, because it will give us a structure and support for doing more to reach out to immigrant and refugee communities.

I’m proud to support this effort, and that our city has voted to be a part of it. I appreciate the work that Council Member Koontz did to represent the city while the initiative was being planned, and for making the resolution we recently voted on to join the initiative. Our participation in this from the beginning means that our city is helping shape the regional conversation, rather than just playing catch up.