State law on the relationship of tenants is focus of lawsuit

Real estate property manager Steve Myers testified Tuesday that when he rents a home to multiple tenants he does not ask if the tenants are related to each other, and he described persons who complain about such living arrangements as “the pitchfork crowd.”

Myers, a lawyer and unsuccessful candidate for mayor-president last year, has been sued by the city-parish at least three times for renting homes to unrelated residents. He countersued the city-parish last year, claiming its zoning regulation is unconstitutional. Myers argues the ordinance violates the constitutional rights of privacy, association and equal protection.

Myers testified Tuesday that he does include on his rental leases a provision of the city-parish’s Unified Development Code that says residential neighborhoods zoned A-1 must be occupied by a “single family.”

The UDC defines family as “an individual or two or more persons who are related by blood, marriage or legal adoption living together.” It stipulates that if the owner lives on the premises, up to four unrelated people can live together by joint agreement.

Myers, who has said he owns about 40 properties parishwide, many of which he rents, testified his tenants are required to place their initials next to the written provision.

“I don’t know if they’re related or not. I don’t ask if they’re related or not. I believe it’s a violation of the Fair Housing Act,” he testified at the trial of a city-parish lawsuit against him.

Frank Gremillion, senior special assistant Parish Attorney, suggested that Myers employs a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when renting properties.

“We don’t have ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ anymore,” state District Judge Janice Clark shot back with a smile. “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

After listening to several hours of testimony and arguments, Clark gave each side seven days to file post-trial written arguments. The judge did not indicate when she would issue a decision.

“It’s time for this court to re-examine the concept of ‘family,’ ” Wade Shows, one of Myers’ attorneys, told Clark at the start of the bench trial.

The single-family rule is more frequently enforced by the city-parish when three or more college students try to rent a home together, but Myers and his attorneys say the law has more far-reaching effects that target the evolving, nontraditional family structure.

Dana Berkowitz, an assistant sociology professor at LSU, testified for Myers that “the definition of ‘family’ is shifting, it’s fluid.”

“There is no single, universal definition of family,” Berkowitz said, noting that heterosexual cohabitation increased ten-fold between 1960 and 2000. She also said there has been an increase in those couples, as well as same-sex couples, fostering children.

Patrick Finneman, along with three male roommates, rents one of Myers’ A-1 zoned properties at 1977 Cherrydale Ave. in the University Gardens subdivision. Myers bought the home in 1994.

Finneman, a graduate school student who works part time at a mortgage company, said his roommates are young professionals and he considers all three family. He said they decided to rent the home together for “financial reasons.”

Paul Naquin, who has lived since 1957 in University Gardens on Morning Glory about five blocks from Cherrydale, testified he notified the city-parish about Myers’ alleged zoning violations.

Naquin said the concrete front yard at 1977 Cherrydale is filled with cars day and night, and there also are parties.

“I was brought up in a nice family neighborhood. I wanted to raise my family in a nice family neighborhood,” he said.

Myers, who contends rental properties do not cause property values to go down, testified that property values in University Gardens skyrocketed 200 percent between 1997 and 2012. He added that Cherrydale has seen prices soar 270 percent since 1997.

He noted that a third of the properties in University Garden are rental properties.

“Property values clearly are not affected,” he said.