By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of 23 Bowling Green landlords and three student renters against the city of Bowling Green and its code enforcement officer. The landlords and the students object to a city ordinance that limits the number of unrelated people who can live in a rental property.
The landlords reportedly own more than 161 homes that cannot be rented out to more than three unrelated people – even though the homes have four or more bedrooms and ample parking. The three students who signed onto the lawsuit were reportedly threatened with eviction.
Leading the lawsuit is Maurice Thompson, of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law in Columbus. Thompson recently represented rural Wood County residents who did not want Utopia pipeline running through their land. He won against the pipeline company.
In this lawsuit, Thompson said the city’s ordinance violates the Ohio Constitution by suppressing private property rights and equal protection and imposing vague standards and excessive fines of $500 per day.
Thompson is one of the landlords affected by the city ordinance. And the three students are his tenants at his rental property on East Merry Street.
Bowling Green City Attorney Mike Marsh said the renter limit has been in place as long as the city zoning – and was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1974.
“He’s claiming the limit is arbitrary,” that it doesn’t take into account the size of the home and the parking space available, Marsh said. That’s true, he agreed. The purpose of the law is to help maintain the density of single-family neighborhoods.
“These are traditional single-family homes converted into rental housing,” Marsh said.
A handful of other college towns in Ohio have similar ordinances, Thompson said.
“Bowling Green is by no means the only city that has this,” he said from his Columbus office on Monday. “But one thing that makes Bowling Green’s unique is that the city claims it is to control population density, yet there are all kinds of exemptions.”
Many properties are “grandfathered in,” but which properties qualify is unclear, Thompson said.
Marsh disagreed. “I think we have a pretty good handle on those grandfathered in,” which include rentals predating zoning.
According to Thompson, Bowling Green is more aggressive than other communities – ordering that extra renters be “thrown out” within 10 days of the violation notice. He questioned the legality of that action.
“Bowling Green’s standards are so egregious,” Thompson said. “Bowling Green has been pretty aggressive in enforcing this.”
Marsh disagreed again. No one has been ousted in 10 days since Marsh has been working with the city the last 30 years. “We try to work with people when they are over-occupied,” he said.
Students are often allowed to finish a semester or complete a lease, he said. “I’m not aware that we’ve ever tried to kick people out in a short period of time.”
Only landlords who own homes with four or more bedrooms, plus parking for four or more cars, were included in the lawsuit, Thompson said. “In that scenario, there’s no reason for them to be limited to three.”
Though many of the landlords were aware of the city ordinance when they purchased the homes, the law was unevenly enforced, he said. In many cases, the renters invite friends to move in with them, without the landlord knowing, he added.
Among the landlords on the lawsuit are Robert Maurer, John Frobose, Kory Iott, Randall Roberts and Anthony Wulff.
“Most of them have abided by it, much to their frustration,” Thompson said of the landlords.
In some cases, Marsh said, the landlords have tried to deceive the city after renting to too many students.
Thompson accused the city of “social engineering.”
“This regulation is aimed at government-controlled social engineering, i.e. keeping ‘the wrong kind of people’ out of certain neighborhoods, rather than land use. Unruly behavior should be directly regulated, rather than regulated on the basis of the relationships between those who live together,” Thompson stated. “Ohioans should not be forced to pay higher rent or endure longer commutes due to such arbitrary regulations.”
“In Ohio, many zoning regulations needlessly interfere with private property rights, drive up the cost of living, fail to accomplish their proclaimed purposes, and are used as political weapons – often to benefit special interests or suppress disfavored minorities. This regulation is no different,” Thompson said. “However, there is no coherent reason why four missionaries should be prohibited from occupying a large six bedroom house, even as an unruly family of eight lives in a smaller home next door.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court.