Saturday, September 26, 2009

Charlotte proposed rental ordinance update

The Eastside Political Action Committee this week sent an email about the proposed Charlotte rental ordinance with a letter from Paul Paskoff, director of the research and planning division for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Charlotte's rental property ordinance has been cussed and discussed for months now, and meanwhile police and the neighbors of troubled properties have had to deal with major problems. Certainly something must be done; maybe deeper research can help.

The letter makes clear that issues exist with current property records in Mecklenburg County. Records with valid contact information have many uses for various departments and a healthy community. Perhaps the implosion of the housing market, foreclosures and the bundling of risky real-estate loans have made finding property owners more difficult, but the community problems remain or worsen. And if those economic factors are major contributors, then the problems are national in scope, with perhaps ideas and assistance on a national level.

Paskoff's letter listed three reasons why he thinks an annual mandatory registration process is best for people who rent out their property.

And it listed concerns with the alternate idea offered by the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, relying on the register of deeds office or the Mecklenburg County Property Assessment and Land Records Management Office. His research showed that those offices don't have records with contact information, and those offices don't have the resources to gather the information without imposing fees for document management.

A couple of new ideas surfaced in the letter:
Register of Deeds David Granberry suggested that police work with the Mecklenburg County Tax Assessor's Office to get access to information about property owners. And Paskoff wrapped up his letter by saying a mandatory annual registration could be useful for other city departments, such as the Economic and Neighborhood Development Department (Property Code Division), the Charlotte Fire Department and and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.

A long–term solution is needed; but a short–term fix is crucial as well. From the minutes of the July City Council meeting, council member Susan Burgess speaking:

"I can think of no better argument for this ordinance than 1813 Tyvola Road. For a year and a half, it's been a nuisance, it's been a danger, and it's been a blight to that entire neighborhood, and the reason nothing has been done about it is that no one can find the owner. I looked at the tax records one time. The tax was paid by some entity called 'Government Bank.' I know the Police Department has been involved, Code Enforcement has worked hard, but there is no person that anybody can find to help remedy this awful, awful situation. This neighborhood has lived with giant rats, with vagrants, with just terrible things going on in this property, and this ordinance would help us solve that problem and as it's repeated all over the city. We have all heard from neighborhood leaders and others who are just neighbors of these properties who are just so frustrated – they have just had it."

What remains unclear: How to fix the problem. A new database of ONLY property owners who rent their property leaves out modernization of property owners who DON'T rent out their property.

The deeper problems should be fixed. At the same time, police need help now in being able to find absentee landlords who fail to monitor their renters and thus increase the workload on police and the danger to nearby communities.

A couple of quick thoughts:
Perhaps a forensic researcher can track specific problem property owners, while the community takes a broader, longer look at how to modernize property records for the whole city.

Police know where the hot spots are, and a targeted effort would focus resources on the problems instead of increasing fees and work for all people who rent property. "Just Google it" won't find the owners; professional, paid research is required. Law firms have long employed special librarians for such work, and those same law firms have also cut back on employment of those people. They have the skills and access to databases on the deep web and can find stuff the ordinary Googler can't.

Mayor Pat McCrory touched on this in the July council minutes:
"The technology has changed so much, and if we just find out that one bank is the only contact we have, I don't think we are doing enough research. It might take a little more searching, an extra step to find out who that bank is and contacts there and who they are paying for, but there is a lot of data out there, and this is true with a lot of companies who are dealing with the same tenants. I want to make sure we take advantage of what existing data and resources are out there before we create another one."

Would using a police researcher to find specific properties be more efficient than managing a full police database of all rental properties? As long as documented increased police calls are available for specific properties, targeted research to find those property owners seems to be legally and ethically valid. (But I'm no legal expert; let me know if otherwise.)

Certainly funding is an issue, so asking questions about the most efficient use of available funds is crucial.

Short term (in government terms), requiring valid contact information for properties when property taxes are paid seems to be a valid solution to investigate further.

Long term, to modernize all records, perhaps other options are available beyond increased fees and taxes. Is there civic grant money available to modernize records? One Charlotte organization received more than $277,000 to create a virtual community library last year. Spending money to research and write grant applications would take resources, of course, but perhaps the return on investment would be higher.

Sources: City Council minutes, in PDF, from July.
Email from the Eastside PAC.
Knight Foundation community grant program.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Charlotte primary election voting results

For official results of the Sept. 15 primary, check the Mecklenburg Board of Elections.

For District 1 City Council, which covers Merry Oaks, Patsy Kinsey had 67.02 percent of the votes with all precincts reporting.

For District 5 City Council, which covers areas just east of Merry Oaks, Nancy Carter had 60.97% percent of the votes with all precincts reporting.

For District 2 City Council, James (Smuggie) Mitchell, Jr. had 81.07 percent of the votes with all precincts reporting.

Top four at-large Democratic candidates: Patrick Cannon, Susan Burgess, David Howard and Darrin L. Rankin.

Top four at-large Republic candidates:
Edwin B. Peacock III, Matthew Ridenhour, Tariq Scott Bokhari and Jaye Rao.

Republican primary for mayor: John Lassiter.

Voter turnout was 4.33%, according to the Board of Elections website.

The turnout map from the Board of Elections appears to show turnout of more than 10 percent in two precincts near Merry Oaks: Midwood Baptist Church at 2029 Mecklenburg Avenue in Plaza Midwood (Precinct 15) and Shamrock Gardens Elementary School at Shamrock Gardens Elementary School, covering parts of Plaza Midwood and Country Club Heights (Precinct 44). At Shamrock, turnout totaled 12.56 percent.

Precinct 29, at Merry Oaks Elementary School at 3508 Draper Ave., totaled just over 5 percent in turnout.

Turnout was more than 10 percent in the southern piece of the Charlotte pie that generally mirrors the Myers Park High School attendance zone.

Precinct 16, at East Stonewall Ame Zion Church at 1729 Griers Grove Rd. in northwest Charlotte, also had more than 10 percent turnout.

Friday, September 11, 2009

East Charlotte's Taste of the World

Mark your calendars and buy tickets to a great international food experience.
Taste of the World is Oct. 8.
The event is a guided tour by bus to sample international dishes at three East Charlotte restaurants, with an opening reception starting at 5:15 p.m. at SMS Catering at 1764 Norland Rd., plus dessert and coffee at the Van Landingham Estate at 2010 The Plaza.
This year, the event is sponsored by Crossroads Charlotte and organized by Charlotte East. The restaurant list is up to 15 and represents foods from Indian to Cuba.
Cost is $30. You can buy tickets via PayPal at Charlotte East.
Crossroads correspondents are telling the stories of the restaurant owners and the cultures behind the restaurants here.
Questions? Email Taste of the World.
Restaurant listing and descriptions from Charlotte East, with a note that more restaurants may join:
Ben Thanh (Vietnamese)
Brazas Brazilian Grill
Café Central
Congas Cuban Café
Dim Sum
Fu Lin Asian Cuisine
Linares Mexican Restaurant
Middle Eastern Deli
Mama’s Caribbean Grill
Namaste (Indian)
Pollos Mario
Portofino’s Ristorante Italiano
Pizza and More

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Vote in the Charlotte primary

Primary Day for Charlotte City Council and Mayor is Tuesday.

This vote settles the races for Districts 1, 2 and 5, determining three seats on the 11–member board that governs the city of Charlotte. The districts only have Democratic candidates running, and those who win the primary face no Republican opposition in November.

Turnout in these small municipal races has generally hovered around 5 percent. You can check whether you live in those districts at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections site. Districts 1 and 5 cover a large swath of central, north and east Charlotte; District 2 covers north and west Charlotte.

Patsy Kinsey faces Owen Sutkowski in District 1, James “Smuggie” Mitchell faces Aaron “Fatso” Sanders in District 2, and Nancy Carter faces Darrell Bonapart in District 5.

You can vote early at the Hal Marshall Center at 618 N. College Street from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday or Friday, or on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Election Day hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

People registered as independents can choose whether they want a Republican or Democrat ballot. The Republican ballot includes a primary for mayor, with John Lassiter facing Martin Davis and Jack Stratton.

If you haven’t registered, you can still do so and vote with one–stop voting, through Saturday. You cannot both register and vote on Election Day, Sept. 15. Here are details.

Through Sept. 8, 333 people had voted at the Hal Marshall Center, and 83 absentee by mail ballots had been approved by the Board of Elections, according to the board’s site.

In the 2007 municipal primary, voter turnout was 5 percent, with a mayoral primary, a Republican at–large council primary and one district primary, according to the board of elections’ site. Early voters totaled 1,713, and the board certified 57 absentee ballots, according to the site.

In the 2005 municipal primary, voter turnout ranged from 4 percent to 10 percent, covering a Republican primary for mayor, a Democratic primary for at–large candidates and primaries in four districts. The 10 percent turnout was in one district with a Republican primary. Early voters totaled 2,377, with 78 absentee ballots, according to the site.

Doing your research:
You can read candidate profiles and search a database of candidates’ answers to questions at The Charlotte Observer, and here are the paper’s endorsements.
And the League of Women Voters, Kids Voting Mecklenburg and Generation Engage paired up to create CharMeckVotes to provide information about candidates in Charlotte and in towns across Mecklenburg.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Schools, flooding and an Elizabeth rezoning

From Under the Water Tower comes a heads up on a rezoning in the Elizabeth neighborhood. Deadline is Wednesday, Sept. 2, to email comments to neighborhood organizers about the rezoning request along Seventh Street. The public hearing is Sept. 21.

The developer is seeking rezoning from R-22 to MUDD (mixed use development) to build up to 390 residential units along Weddington Avenue and Seventh Street, near the historic Palmer Building on Firefighter Place and near Lupie's Cafe.

The neighborhood had a meeting seeking comments about the rezoning on Aug. 27 and is sharing those comments with the developer, Winter Elizabeth of Atlanta, according to the Elizabeth Community Association. You can see some site-plan details at the neighborhood site.

The rezoning doesn't directly affect Merry Oaks, but it raises a couple of thoughts with broader community impact:
1. The comments in a PDF from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools officials at the site note that "adequacy of existing school capacity in this area is a significant problem." The officials estimate the development, when completed, could add 118 students to Eastover Elementary School, 80 students to Alexander Graham Middle School and 93 students to Myers Park High School. Those kinds of numbers are important to keep in mind when considering redrawing school boundaries: There is talk of moving some people out of the feeder zone for Myers Park High to East Mecklenburg High. Numbers like these might add more weight to that concept. The numbers also highlight how school quality affects development and real estate. If school performance for the Garinger High School district were stronger, would demand for development and housing in that district in east-central Charlotte be stronger? Would growth and development be more evenly spaced across the county?

2. The comments in a PDF from stormwater services at the rezoning site appear to be minimal. Given the density proposed in this development under MUDD zoning, and given its proximity to Briar Creek, it seems deep consideration should be given to the effects of flood zones downstream. In the long run, that consideration could save Mecklenburg County money and save homeowners the hassle of unexpected flooding. The county has spent millions buying homes in floodplains along Briar Creek in recent years. Should dense MUDD zoning get further examination? Can dense urban design have features that absorb and slow stormwater runoff to avoid urban flooding?

Further links:
Background from the Charlotte Business Journal in 2008.
Planning documents for growth in "Centers, Corridors and Wedges" from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department.
FEMA floodplain maps.

Image credits: Google maps (top) and FEMA maps (middle).