How many people can live in one home? Nashville council still debating overcrowding issue

How many people can live in one home? Nashville council still debating overcrowding issue

The decision on how many unrelated residents is too many for a single home will have to wait another month.

Nashville’s Metro Council voted Tuesday to defer a bill proposing changes to the city’s overcrowding code after lengthy deliberation in committees and on the council floor.

Nashville’s code currently allows no more than three unrelated people to live together, regardless of home size or number of bedrooms. There are no occupancy limits placed on families composed of people related by blood, marriage or law. Households that included a mix of related and unrelated people are technically in violation of the code.

The bill, sponsored by East Nashville Council member Sean Parker, would legalize households with a mix of related and unrelated residents, and specify that a single dwelling is limited to housing one “family,” which would include a higher number of unrelated residents. Parker’s original bill proposed increasing the cap from three unrelated people per dwelling to seven — an idea that secured approval from the Metro Planning Commission. In a compromise with community members and other stakeholders, Parker later reduced that number to five.

The council ultimately voted to move forward with an amendment from Council member Russ Pulley that would allow a maximum of four unrelated residents per home. They stopped short of passing the bill on its third and final reading, instead deferring the bill for two meetings. It will next be heard in March.

The idea of permitting more than three unrelated people living together in a single home has stirred hours of debate among council and community members.

Proponents say an increase would update the law to consider modern, non-nuclear family structures and make housing more accessible as housing costs in Nashville rise. Those opposed cite concerns of inadvertently legalizing private boarding houses or creating more pressure on already crowded neighborhoods through potential increased noise, trash or a proliferation of cars on streets with limited parking.

“I don’t think that a severe restriction on household occupancy is how we deal with every issue in our neighborhoods,” Parker said.

Metro’s codes department enforces overcrowding rules through an anonymous complaint-driven system, which has been criticized for allowing people to weaponize code penalties against neighbors. In the eyes of Nashville’s current code, which does not limit the number of related people living together, “overcrowding” is only a violation if the people living in a home are not related.

District 26 Council member Courtney Johnston supports legalizing mixed households and clarifying the meaning of “dwelling,” but any increase to the maximum for unrelated residents without material improvements in enforcement causes her “grave concern.” Johnston said she received 186 emails about this bill, 12 of which were in favor of the change.

Enforcement difficulty

The codes regarding overcrowding and occupancy apply to renters and homeowners alike.

Metro Codes receives roughly 37,000 total complaints each year. Interim Metro Codes Director Byron Hall said the department received 297 complaints of overcrowding between January 2020 and Feb. 6. Nearly all overcrowding complaints are related to crowded street parking or noise, Hall said.

Overcrowding complaints typically involve younger residents or students from one of Nashville’s several colleges.

Nashville’s overcrowding code received renewed attention in September 2022 after five Lipscomb University students reported that two of them would be forced to move out of the four-bedroom house they had rented for 18 months due to overcrowding violations.

Ahead of tomorrow night’s Council meeting, here’s a quick summary of the discourse on BL2022-1471, regarding how many unrelated people can live together in one home. It will be on third reading.🧵
You may recall the issue from this story:

— Cassandra Stephenson (@CStephenson731) February 20, 2023

All five students were on the lease. The students’ landlord was unaware of the occupancy rule, which the students said was “outdated” and targeted unfairly toward college students and people with lower incomes who are more likely to split rent with roommates to afford climbing Nashville housing costs.

HubNashville records showed one complaint at the students’ address: “improperly parked vehicles” reported in December.

Enforcing Metro’s overcrowding code is already fraught with difficulty — Hall said Codes staff cannot enter a property unless the owner or residents give them permission, and civil warrants take time to obtain. If a property is a rental and Metro Codes finds there are more than three unrelated tenants on the lease, they can prosecute. Otherwise, it’s difficult to prove who lives in a home and whether or not they are related.

“It’s hard to enforce unless they actually admit it,” Hall said.

Another section of the code that dictates occupancy based on minimum square footage requirements is enforceable, Metro Codes spokesperson Will Dodd told council members Tuesday. But that code is typically used on the front end when builders submit site plans. Codes can reference these site plans later to help determine what a building’s occupancy should be, he said, but the department typically leans on the overcrowding code limiting unrelated housemates.

Hall, who previously said he wouldn’t support an increase in light of current enforcement challenges, indicated Tuesday that Metro Codes was amenable to a limit of five unrelated people per home, and could note concerns with enforcement as they arise, to be addressed later.

Debate centers on district needs, parking

District 7 Council member Emily Benedict, a residential realtor, said she sees people “struggle to get into housing every day.” For many younger people, buying a house with friends is their path to homeownership. People are already living together — perhaps in violation of the current code — and she doesn’t think this bill will “open the floodgates” as other council members have warned.

Johnston said this is the only tool to address people who are causing occupancy-related problems in neighborhoods, and even then, enforcement is already tricky. She’s open to expanding the maximum number of unrelated residents in the future but said Nashville isn’t ready for that change now.

She distributed a screenshot recently taken from a Nashville real estate investor Facebook page advertising properties. Metro Council is “on third reading to allow up to seven unrelated roommates,” the post stated. “Rental rates are $750+ a room in this area, make over $5,000 a month on each existing home by renting by the room.”

“I don’t know that this (increase) solves anything, but it has the potential to create a lot of very serious problems for our neighbors,” she said.

Limits appropriate in her district, Johnston added, might not be appropriate for others. A handful of other council members echoed this sentiment, asking whether occupancy limits could be based on square footage or number of rooms, or tailored for community needs.

District 29 Council member Delishia Porterfield said an overabundance of cars is a real problem in her district. Street parking is so constricted that it’s impacting sightlines, posing risks to pedestrians and drivers.

Parker said other areas of the code can be used to better address some of the issues at play, including parking and noise. Metro police are tasked with enforcing noise ordinances. Metro Codes can issue violations for vehicles that improperly park on grass.

But there is no way to limit how many cars a household has, and people are legally allowed to park on the street in the public right of way so long as areas aren’t marked otherwise by Nashville’s transportation department.

Council member Tom Cash proposed a resolution that would incorporate an acknowledgement of occupancy rules into the landlord registration forms that must be filed annually with Metro Codes in an effort to increase awareness. The resolution was also deferred to track with the bill.

Cassandra Stephenson covers Metro government for The Tennessean. Reach her at Follow Cassandra on Twitter at @CStephenson731.