Tenant cap could tap down rents

UNC student Kylee Wooten has the proper mindset to succeed as a first-year associate in a big-city law firm: a willing slave mentality that all but welcomes abuse. I gleaned this from an essay she wrote pleading for the town to raise the occupancy cap on the number of unrelated people who can live together in a house. Limiting the number of tenants to four per household, as town ordinance does, poses a hardship on students she says.

“If the price of rent cannot fall,” she writes, “then the maximum occupancy should rise.”

But the price of rent can fall, and the town enforcing its ordinance ultimately puts pressure on landlords to lower rents.

Some Town Council members – Donna Bell and George Cianciolo, among them – believe that building more apartment complexes will lower rents. But I challenge you to find a desirable city where that philosophy works. Sally Greene understands that “it’s more complicated than that,” as she replied to Cianciolo after he’d posited his theory at a candidates forum last fall.

Taxes and development costs factor in. But the single most important factor in determining price is the depth and breadth of the pool of tenants willing to pay high rents. Shrink that pool, and rents will decrease as well.

Landlords claim that students will pay about $800 per bedroom, and that’s how they set the rent on their properties. Students approach the transaction by looking at the price of the rental unit and calculating how many roommates they need to squeeze in to make the rent affordable.

Recently the town has stepped up enforcement of its no-more-than-four ordinance, fining landlords $100 per day per infraction, plus another $500 per day per violation of each state law that kicks in when more than five unrelated tenants share a unit. And the town is making property owners tear down makeshift walls that subdivide rooms into a greater number of private sleeping spaces.

The town’s motivation is to protect students’ safety, said police attorney Matt Sullivan, the interim executive director of planning and sustainability during the current reorganization of the town’s Planning and Inspections departments. Many of the overstuffed houses don’t have enough smoke alarms, exit lighting or sufficient egress from illegal bedrooms, which could spell tragedy if a fire breaks out. The crackdown also protects neighborhoods from excessive trash, cars and loud parties that create a public nuisance.

A side effect of enforcing tenant limits is market pressure to lower rents. A landlord renting a four-bedroom house for $3,200 a month ($800 a bedroom) used to be able to fill it with eight students willing to pay $400 each. But as landlord and tenants realize that the four-tenant maximum will be enforced, landlords will have to compete for the smaller number of students willing to pay $800 apiece. Rather than let their properties stay empty while waiting for a tenant with deep pockets, landlords will lower rents, unhappily, of course, but some money is better than none, in the long run.

As I follow my daughter’s search for off-campus housing, I’ve been taken aback by the pervasiveness of landlords taking advantage of students. I appreciate the town’s enforcement efforts to discourage untenable living condition and to promote affordable rentals.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri Buckner

     /  January 6, 2014

    Slave mentality? A really unfortunate attempt at humor if that’s what it is.

  2. Don Evans

     /  January 6, 2014


    French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine once opined, “Fifteen percent of the galley slaves were volunteers.” So there is a mindset that willingly enters into such a state of dependency, be it as rowers or as apprentice lawyers.

    Of course, given the column topic, it might be better to debate perceptions of landlord/town occupancy rules and student entitlements, not diversionary semantics.

  3. Terri Buckner

     /  January 6, 2014


    Students come here to learn; we should hope they learn in a civil society. Starting off a column by name calling a young person totally overshadows any content in the column.

  4. anonymous

     /  January 6, 2014

    >>> Bunkbeds… problem solved

  5. Nancy

     /  January 6, 2014

    Terri — What was most disconcerting to me when I read the student’s essay was her willingness to acquiesce to landlords who flout laws to take advantage of students solely to feed the landlords’ greed. I grew up in a different era, when young women fought to change unfair practices, and it troubles me deeply to see the emergence of a mindset that would have this young woman pleading for something that ultimately will hurt her.

    My overall point is to bring to light the town fighting for the best interests of the students by enforcing consequences for landlords who engage in these illegal schemes that hurt students.

  6. Terri Buckner

     /  January 6, 2014

    I haven’t been able to find the essay you say this student wrote but I did find a student by that name who is a sophomore–someone who is 19 years old? Probably not very experienced with economics or politics, certainly not deserving of being labelled as having a “slave mentality.” I suspect, Nancy, that if someone older and more experienced disagreed with something one of your children wrote and did so by applying such an appalling descriptor to your offspring that you would be up in arms and have some interesting words to write about that adult. You could have made your point in a way that was instructive and not so offensive. In a couple of days, the Google search engines will have linked her name with “slave mentality” forever.

  7. Fred Black

     /  January 6, 2014

    Didn’t take long to get this with a “slave mentality” search.

    … in a big-city law firm: a willing slave mentality that all but welcomes abuse. ….

  8. Don Evans

     /  January 7, 2014


    And your point is . . .

  9. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  January 7, 2014

    “The Princeton Review estimates that more than half – 58 percent – of UNC students live off campus.

    The 1996 fire codes require sprinklers only for apartments and Greek houses, leaving some students with possible safety concerns.

    “The biggest risk right now is boarding houses and individual rental properties,” said Chief Jones, who still keeps the names of the five 1996 fire victims attached to his desk as a remembrance.

    Rental properties must have smoke detectors, Jones said, but the fire department has no authority to inspect them. He said students need to check that smoke-detector batteries are charged and window exits are not painted or screwed shut.”

    From a 2007 article about a 1996 fire that killed 6 students the day before graduation. We have to remember that the rules were put in place for a reason, in an effort to learn from a prior tragedy that today’s students (or landlords) may have forgotten or never heard about.

  10. Anita

     /  January 7, 2014

    I think it’s important to hear what students think and what they have to say. This young woman is legally allowed to vote in this town and her opinion should be heard. I disagree with her, but then I disagree with other opinion pieces written by people much older and presumably wiser. Instead of castigating her, maybe we should all chip in and take her to lunch and try to learn more about her experience.

  11. many

     /  January 7, 2014

    Is there a link to Ms. Wooten’s essay somewhere? I would like to read it objectively and judge for myself.

    Note to Nancy: I think if the term “Helsinki” or “Stockholm syndrome”, or a reference to the “Stanford Prisoner Experiment” had been used instead of “slave mentality” the hyperbolic ultra sensitives on this list would not be so upset, but I think I understood your intended meaning without reading too much into it.

    I think you have made a much sadder comment that education has become antithetical to free thought and creative solutions, and that a “mindset to succeed” is now synonymous with mind control and settling for the status quo.

  12. JWJ

     /  January 7, 2014

    “Some Town Council members – Donna Bell and George Cianciolo, among them – believe that building more apartment complexes will lower rents. But I challenge you to find a desirable city where that philosophy works.”

    “Shrink that pool, and rents will decrease as well.”

    So you are saying that increasing supply does NOT work, but decreasing demand DOES work?
    I can’t imagine that if say a net 3000 units were added that the rental price would drop relative to other prices.

  13. Linda

     /  January 7, 2014

    Just to clarify – almost 60 percent of UNC undergrads live either in campus res halls, Greek housing (which is privately owned) or in Granville Towers. First years are required to live on campus and most sophomores do also.

  14. Concerned

     /  November 8, 2014

    Can you provide the specific ordinance number you are referring to in your article. I have heard of this tenant cap before and now have a child and friends considering signing a lease for next year that may ultimately be illegal. 6 in a house. Has the ordinance changed since Jan 2014? Thanks.