FENA Candidate Questionnaire

AT-LARGE CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATES

Three of the following five candidates will represent our neighborhood in January: Sarah Grace, Micah McCarey, Damon Krane, Ben Ziff, Iris Virjee.


PLEASE NOTE: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO VOTE FOR THREE CANDIDATES. YOU MAY VOTE FOR ONLY ONE, OR TWO OR THREE.


FENA asked these candidates four questions. Here are the questions and answers:


Q: There have been discussions regarding the permitting of short-term rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO in R-1 zoned neighborhoods such as ours. What is your position on this?


Sarah Grace: Currently nothing in City Code prohibits individuals from operating a short-term rental. Anyone can rent out all or a portion of their property without inspections or regulations as long as it is not being rented out for more than 6 months per year. While I have not heard of significant problems under the present situation, I think that the City should move forward with permitting short-term rentals within city limits. By putting some rules and permitting requirements in place, the safety and accountability of the practice would be increased as well as the reliability of collection of the Transient Guest Tax that helps to fund The Athens County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.


Damon Krane: The expansion of short-term rentals in our city would be a good thing ONLY IF it made owner-occupied homeownership affordable to more city residents. If a resident rents out an extra bedroom in the same home where they reside and uses that supplemental income to help make their mortgage payments or to help recover from a hefty down payment, then that’s great! Our city and county both have low rates of homeownership, and no one should have to spend their life flushing rent money down the toilet. Plus, even city workers who can afford to buy their own homes currently usually cannot afford to buy homes within city limits. Athens will always have lots of transient student renters, but we should NOT have lots of long-term resident working class families renting rather than owning their own homes, and more city workers should be able to afford to buy homes in the city where they work. 


So if we can regulate short-term rentals in such a way that they help increase our city’s rate of owner-occupied homeownership, then I am in favor of short-term rentals. BUT if the city cannot or will not regulate short-term rentals in that way, then I am vehemently opposed to the expansion of short-term rentals because it will have the opposite effect. It will increase the conversion of single family homes into rental properties; it will price more city workers out of the city housing market; and it will exacerbate already staggering local economic inequality. 

Finally, we need to recognize that, at present, the City of Athens cannot adequately regulate the rental properties we already have. The state of long-term rentals in our city is largely deplorable and often hazardous. City housing stock is continuously deteriorating. The Carriage Hill (now Campus Heights) Apartments Fire of 2017 (still the subject of a class action lawsuit) is a clear example of the results of consistently negligent city code enforcement. 


Before we consider expanding the types of rentals in our city, we first need to get a handle on the rentals we already have. That means improving our city housing code, shifting more resources to Code Enforcement, and overhauling the rental inspections process and overall operations of the Code Enforcement office.

Micah McCarey: With the understanding that short-term rentals of up to 6 months are already permitted in the City of Athens, I am in support of short term rental opportunities in R-1 zoned neighborhoods as long at least the owner resides in the property. Such opportunities can be a very helpful revenue sources for prospective homeowners and others. However, I worry that homes used for short term rentals in situations where owners do not reside in the home will attract visitors whose conduct disrupts residents who live in the area.

Iris Virjee: While there are certainly some potential economic benefits of short-term rentals, I do have strong concerns about the effects on the housing market. Athens is already facing a shortage of affordable housing, and unfortunately it is well known and studied that short-term rental platforms like AirBnb cause a gradual increase in housing costs. By buying lower-cost housing (which might have otherwise been affordable homes for families or students), and “flipping” them to get ideal rates for vacation renting, the host is contributing to the inflation of housing costs that continue to plague renters, discourage people from staying in Athens, and drive people out of their homes. Additionally, these platforms are not held to the health and safety regulations, nor the
occupancy taxes, that other forms of lodging are required. I would highly recommend caution, and strict policies to deter the above repercussions if we are to allow short-term rentals into our neighborhoods. 

Ben Ziff: I believe there is a possibility of benefit from allowing short term rentals, like an Airbnb, but also worry that our already stretched code office could struggle with an influx of rentals.  Also, a recent study showed that with a 1% increase in Airbnbs in an area, the same area experienced a 0.018% increase in rents, and a 0.026% increase in house prices.  This may not sound like a lot, but those numbers will add up quickly.

Q: Late this year or early in 2022, the Environment and Sustainability Commission plans to introduce to council a proposal which would loosen the restrictions on backyard chickens in city neighborhoods. Where do you stand on permitting chickens in R-1 neighborhoods and why?

Sarah Grace: I believe that the City needs to be flexible and creative as we move forward to improve not only the sustainability of the community as a whole, but also to allow individuals to participate in activities that enable them to decrease their own carbon foot print. One such activity could be backyard chickens. Having backyard chickens is an environmentally sound act. Backyard chickens reduce reliance on industrial farms, provide natural pest control, and are great composters of food waste.


That does not mean that there are not downsides such as noise and smell that need to be taken into consideration. By listening to the recommendation of the Environment and Sustainability Commission and carefully considering issues such as allowable public health regulations, flock size, space and setback requirements, and crowing roosters, I believe that a workable compromise can be reached.


Damon Krane: I grew up in the country, and my family there has always had chickens. Based on that experience, I believe roosters are probably too noisy and too aggressive to be kept in R-1 neighborhoods. As for hens, the biggest concern I see is health and sanitation, since chickens can be very dirty. And once more, the problem is that the public agencies that regulate health and sanitation (Athens City Code Enforcement and the Athens City-County Health Department) are both too under-resourced and overburdened to adequately carry out their existing missions — never mind regulating short-term rentals and backyard chickens. 

We must get a handle on code enforcement first. Then we can consider whether or not to permit backyard chickens in R-1 neighborhoods. Until then, I think the issue is a non-starter.
 
Micah McCarey: I am not in support of backyard chickens in R-1 Zoned neighborhoods due to significant community concerns regarding animal waste, noise, and predators chickens may attract.

Iris Virjee:  I’ll admit I may be a bit biased on this issue, only because I grew up in a rural area and always kept chickens, so I’m very fond of them and I miss being able to have them. That being said, I also know from those experiences that allowing them in the city will absolutely require careful and thorough stipulations– mainly in regards to the size and security of an enclosure, and healthy maintenance of the animals and their waste. It is very difficult to keep predators away from chickens, and they are prone to a number of illnesses and injuries. With an ordinance containing those and other necessary conditions, I believe allowing backyard chickens would be a fitting addition to Athens’ culture of fun and sustainability, and could even offer an opportunity for affordable, humane local food partnerships. 

Ben Ziff: I think loosening the restrictions on having chickens in a backyard is…an interesting idea.  I like the idea, personally, of being able to have a fenced area and a small coop, with four or five chickens.  But, I also know that many people around me could consider that an audible nuisance.  That being said, I am doubtful that the sound of some chickens would be worse than the traffic I hear echoing around town every day.

Q: The Planning Commission is currently considering a city ordinance to modify parking
regulations. What is your position on the proposal as it’s written. What, if any, changes would
you like to see in the proposed ordinance?

Sarah Grace: The current requirements for parking lead to an excessive number of paved parking spaces in the City. I think that adjustments to those requirements are appropriate and necessary if the City is going to make progress toward the goals outlined in the Comprehensive Plan. However, it is important that I respect the distinct roles and responsibilities that different branches and units of our government play. To allow the process to function as it should, I, as a member of the Planning and Development Committee, try to avoid making specific comments on items that have already been sent to the Planning Commission until their evaluation process is completed. The Commission is holding public hearings and carefully evaluating the proposed ordinance. I have
confidence in our City Planner and in the Planning Commission and will carefully review the recommendation that they send back to Council.


Damon Krane: I am in favor of expanding public transit. I am in favor of making our city more walkable and bike-friendly. I believe shrinking our city’s carbon footprint should be a top priority. At the same time, I am opposed to removing the current requirement that landlords provide a number of off-street parking spots on the premises equal to the number of bedrooms in the rental home.


Until public transit is dramatically expanded at the city, county, state and national levels, OU students will bring cars to Athens, and most residents will need an automobile on hand for emergencies and trips outside of town. Eliminating the current rental housing parking requirement will simply make life more difficult for students and lower income residents while simultaneously increasing the conversion of single family homes into rental properties, which in turn will price more city workers outside of city limits (and therefore require that they drive to work!) and increase our already staggering local economic inequality.  


I’m known for criticizing my opponents, but I would be remiss to not point out that both Iris Virjee and Ben Ziff also had very good things to say about this subject at the September 21 League of Women Voters candidate forum. I encourage anyone who missed it to watch the forum video.


I think we need to reform parking regulations, but I am in favor of different changes. To reduce unnecessary traffic and driving on city streets, lower emissions, and make life easier for lower income residents — all while still preventing long-term storage parking — I am in favor of replacing our city’s blanket 24-hour parking rule with a sensible neighborhood parking permit system like those successfully employed in countless other cities around the country. All residents should be able to purchase reasonably-priced annual parking permits for city streets near their homes, up to the number of bedrooms or residents in their home, as well as limited-time parking passes for
temporary visitors. Any vehicles lacking a permit could still be subject to a 24-hour parking limit.


In addition, I think we need to make non-motorized and e-scooter transportation safer and more feasible by enforcing the city code’s sidewalk maintenance requirements. I think we need to add sidewalks many places they are currently lacking. I think we should devote more of the city budget to expanding bus service. I think we need to improve city bus stops to include clearer information about bus routes and schedules. I think we need to add more bike racks along city streets. I think we need to add more solar-powered street lights to provide more sustainable safety lighting for pedestrian travel. I think the city needs to be planting more trees. And I think we need to invest in
expanded use of renewable energy.


Iris Virjee: Implementing restrictive parking policies such as this one benefits developers while creating additional barriers for most residents and visitors. I particularly object to the use of the term “transit-oriented model”  (according to meeting minutes), because this proposal includes nothing about devoting attention and resources toward any other aspects of the city’s transportation infrastructure. To restrict parking while failing to address inadequacies in our bus and taxi systems, bus stops and schedules, streetlights, safe and complete pedestrian walkway, etc., is indicative of alternative motivations. The majority of Athens is a food desert, so residents of those areas have to travel to access affordable food as well as other amenities. The proposal also references the perceived habits of students, claiming they don’t need cars. This is misleading in many ways, and also ignores the needs of non-student residents who do not have access to the
amenities offered on campus. Restrictive parking also affects the demographic of rural or out-of-town visitors, including tourists, parents, commuters, and the many people living beyond city limits who come to Athens daily to work, shop, and have fun. So, I expect such an ordinance would be damaging to the economy as well as burdensome to our citizens. 


Ben Ziff: I very much approve of some of the changes currently written, but still struggle with the concept of a landlord being able to reduce a home’s parking spaces to zero, simply because the home is within just over a quarter mile of a transit route.  I want to help Athens move towards an environmentally progressive and sound future, but am concerned about the possible negative outcomes of this part of the legislation. Hopefully, one day we will have an incredibly robust public transit system, easily accessed and utilized by all.  But in the meantime, I like having a parking space for my vehicle, directly behind my rented house.


Q: Currently, a couple (two people) renting a house in our neighborhood is charged the rate for two trash cans even if they put out only one can. Meanwhile, a couple (two people) who own their home and put out one can is charged the single-can rate.  Is this justified? If so, why? If not, how will you work on council to change this?


Sarah Grace: There are reasons and justifications for both sides of this situation, so I am open to it being re-evaluated. The primary reasons for the current pricing structure are: 1) historically, in Athens, the amount of waste generated by rental properties is higher than that of similarly sized owner occupied residences, and 2) this pricing structure was factored into the calculation of the rates necessary to allow the City to support a local business that pays their workers a living wage and provides them with benefits. In order to evaluate the impact of changing the current pricing structure, I would ask our Director of Code Enforcement and Community Development to provide a breakdown of the number of rental properties in the City that have permits for only 1 or 2 occupants and from that determine the predicted amount of the decrease in revenue that would
result from allowing those properties to pay the single-can rate and what, if any, other rate adjustments would be necessary to meet the costs associated with our waste removal contract.

Damon Krane: It is unjustified and unfair. It is regressive taxation that disproportionately burdens lower income people. It is an example of the city going after “low hanging fruit” and taking advantage of people simply because such people lack the resources to resist. And it is not the only example –or the worst example– of the city operating this way.

I mentioned the 24-hour parking rule earlier. I’ve lived in Athens for 15 years, at 13 different properties, all over town, in both predominantly renter neighborhoods and predominantly homeowner neighborhoods. So I know from ample firsthand experience that the 24-hour parking rule is selectively enforced overwhelmingly against the same working class and student renters upon whom the city also imposes the double-can trash fee by default.


At the same time homeowners are granted the option of paying lower garbage fees, the 24-hour rule is usually enforced in homeowner neighborhoods only upon homeowners’ request or during busy OU weekends. Otherwise, in my experience you can park in the same spot on most predominantly homeowner streets of our city for weeks or even months at a time without ever needing to worry about the 24-hour rule. But park in the same spot in the city’s West Side for 25 hours, and you’ll get a $20 ticket. 49 hours and you’ll be looking at a $40 fine and more than $100 in towing fees. 

We need to elect people who are committed to fairness. People who are committed to reducing inequality rather than increasing it. I believe I am one such person. If elected to Council, I will do everything I can to introduce and/or support legislation that corrects these unfair practices.

 
Micah McCarey: As a member of a two-person household renting a home where we put out one trash can each week, I would like for others in my situation to be charged the single-can rate. However, understanding the extreme importance of quality waste and recycling services for people and the environment, I would not want to see the rates adjusted until an equally valuable alternative revenue strategy was established.


Iris Virjee: Unfortunately, this is how Athens Utility rates are currently set. I do believe that this system is extremely unfair to renters, and I see absolutely no reason the fee should be higher for them. I suspect many renters are unaware of this disparity, as I was, and would agree that this matter should be brought to the council’s attention. This is one reason among many to elect candidates who are renters, and who intend to pursue transparency and communication with citizens.


Ben Ziff: As a renter who is fortunate enough to have his trash fee paid by his landlady, I haven’t been as aware of this issue as I should have been!  I have heard from some people that rentals “tend to generate more trash”, but I’m not entirely sure how accurate this statement is.  I do acknowledge that I have certainly seen a lot of rentals in the uptown/uptown adjacent area that regularly have huge amounts of trash, so there does seem to be some validity to it.  That being said, I’ve been a renter here since 2009, and in that time I’ve never found myself or my friends to generate an abnormal amount of trash which would require an additional receptacle.  Perhaps, the trash rates should be changed, so that a unit with 1-2 occupants can have a single can, and then 3-6 would have 2, and so on and so forth.  It doesn’t seem entirely fair to me, to place the extra
burden of cost onto renters.