Leave Dwell Enough Alone

Two's company. Three's a crowd. In Coral Gables, it might even be a crime.

Never a body to shy away from imposing its moral will on the citizenry, the Coral Gables City Commission has tentatively approved regulations that prohibit more than two unrelated people from living together under the same roof. Were they to call the City Beautiful home, the Golden Girls of TV fame would be scofflaws. So would Batman, Robin, and Alfred the butler. The list of other hypothetical -- though not necessarily fictional -- violators goes on: two elderly women sharing a house and employing a live-in nurse, pooling their Social Security checks and providing emotional and practical support for each other in their waning years; a gay couple, or an unmarried heterosexual couple, sharing a house with a third housemate.

The issue was raised by residents living near the University of Miami who had complained for years about landlords renting to rowdy college students. Neighbors furnished eyewitness and detailed accounts of Animal House-like revelry along their once-quiet streets, of raucous all-night parties, of cars parked illegally on lawns, sidewalks, and in alleyways, of bellicose students urinating and fornicating in their gardens.

Among the perturbed Gablesians who helped spur the commission to action was homeowner Charlotte Rosenfeld. In a sarcastic nod to the city's famously anal-retentive code, she wrote a letter to Building and Zoning director Margaret Pass: "Just leave it to Code Enforcement in Coral Gables to take apart a homeowner in the city and threaten them with serious fines if, God forbid, their house numbers are not the approved size, or their hedges are a little too high, or their roof has some mildew on it. You folks do an exemplary job with military precision handling those terrible infractions. Just where are you, though, when in the City Beautiful, in a lovely residential neighborhood, a duplex containing six bedrooms is rented out to be used by six different college students?"

According to City Attorney Elizabeth Hernandez, the existing Gables codes that govern who can legally live in a residence (i.e., a house, apartment, or duplex) are unenforceable. At the crux of the difficulty has been the city's archaic definition of a "family": two or more people "who live together on the same premises, upon one of whom there is an obligation, either legal or moral, to support the others -- in whole or in part -- and who occupies the position of head of the house." Hernandez says her predecessor, Robert Zahner, decided that the rule was too vague.

Over the past few months, the issue has come before the City of Coral Gables/ University of Miami Community Relations Committee as well as the Planning and Zoning Board. The Community Relations Committee (made up of Coral Gables residents and members of the UM academic community) suggested that as many as three unrelated people be allowed to occupy a residence. But doing its part to defend the city against the horrors of social permissiveness, the Planning and Zoning Board ratcheted that number to two and submitted its recommendation to the commission.

The new rule is stricter than most of its counterparts in Dade County -- and across the nation. The Miami Beach city code, for instance, allows not more than three unrelated people to live together in the same dwelling, and it excludes "servants" from the tally. North Miami Beach permits a family to consist of as many as three unrelated people "who are living and cooking as a single household." Al Berg, Coral Gables's zoning administrator, says he recently reviewed the municipal codes of other U.S. cities and found that on average they permit between four and six unrelated people to live in the same residence.

When the issue came up for a vote May 9, several commissioners expressed uncharacteristic hesitation to set such a narrow limit. Only one, however, cast a dissenting vote. "I just have a problem with what the role of government is," proclaimed Commissioner Chip Withers, who was on the losing side of the 4-1 vote. "We're worried about the noise and the parking and the beer cans on the front yard. If none of that were existent, we wouldn't be here discussing this. And I just don't know that...with the relationships the way they are today, that this is the way to go about it."

Calling the measure only a "prophylactic approach" to the problems of overcrowding -- noise, traffic, stress on municipal utilities -- planning director David Russ admitted, "This is not going to solve the problem. This will make it less likely." In addition, Russ told the commission, the proposed ordinance creates an enforceable standard.

Elizabeth Hernandez says similar restrictions have already been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. "There's no magic to the number two," she asserts. "Two is what's proven to pass constitutional muster."

The Gables commission will give the wording of the ordinance a second and final reading June 13. If approved, it will take effect a month later, just in time to thwart returning UM students. Jennifer Willen, UM's director of commuter student affairs, doesn't think passage of the ordinance would precipitate a housing crisis. Many students, she points out, already find off-campus housing elsewhere. "What it means is it will basically make it more difficult to find convenient housing," she asserts.

While she doesn't know what percentage of off-campus-dwelling students resides in Coral Gables, Willen says more than 50 percent of all undergraduates eschewed the dorms this past fall semester, including 69 percent of the junior class and 82 percent of seniors. (According to Coral Gables Assistant City Manager Sandy Youkilis, the new ordinance wouldn't affect the university's fraternity houses, which, like group homes for the disabled or elderly, receive special residential zoning and aren't considered single-family homes.)

As for enforcement, Hernandez anticipates some difficulty when it comes to balancing law against conscience. "If a neighbor complains that two unrelated women are living with a nurse, the code enforcement board is going to have a difficult decision to make: They're either going to enforce or they're not," says the city attorney. "If you have a bunch of rowdy kids, that's an easy call. But you have to apply the rule evenly. It's going to make for some very interesting cases, I think.

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