Housing Hassle

University-area neighborhoods continue to battle the development of so-called mini-dorms

Resembling a small motel plopped down in the middle of a single-story neighborhood, two long dwellings sorely stick out in the 400 block of East Linden Street. Scattered near the University of Arizona, these are some of the so-called mini-dorms which have residents and politicians up in arms.

But at the same time, a builder of the units is in court, trying to force the city of Tucson to allow his continued construction of the projects.

"I'm so pissed off about the issue," steams Kathleen Dunbar, the Ward 3 City Council member who represents many of the affected neighborhoods.

The mini-dorms--usually either one large house or two houses on the same lot with four to five bedrooms each--are often rented to 10-12 college students. Instantly controversial when they first appeared (See "Density Discontent," May 20, 2004), the privately financed structures brought unusually swift action from the City Council. Hoping to prevent additional construction, they adopted parking changes to the city's Land Use Code in the R-1, single-family zoning classification.

But the units have also proliferated in the higher-density R-2 zone, where duplex development is allowed. Neighborhood residents, though, insist this kind of building should not be permitted.

"Having a second unit on a lot happens" in an R-2 zone, explains Carrie Calvert, vice president of the Northwest Neighborhood Association. "But that's different than having a large, two-story second unit that's very densely populated."

Mike Haggerty, a former Ward 3 council representative, agrees. Living across the street from one of the units, he says: "I have no problems with the students, but the architecture is disturbing, and the gravel front yard has cars parked all over it."

Another university-area resident, Martha Retallick, echoes those sentiments. "People like me buy old houses that were rentals," she says, "and fix them up to live in. We're trying to improve the property, and thus the neighborhood."

Instead of benefiting their surroundings, Retallick says, the mini-dorms hurt them. "They make anyone who lives in the midtown area fear for their property values." As for those who build the projects, Retallick believes they have only higher profits in mind.

One of those builders is Michael Teufel Sr. He, along with his like-named son and another business associate, have gone to court, seeking to continue developing mini-dorms the way they have in the past.

The younger Teufel owns three now-vacant small homes near the university. One is a cute little red-brick structure; another has blue trim around a white stucco surface. Wanting to install mini-dorms on the properties, the Teufels apparently feel the city has flip-flopped when it comes to approving their development plans.

In R-2 zones, at one time, the city allowed the units to have parking areas where cars directly backed out into alleys or streets. While beneficial for the property owner, the practice caused problems, especially with numerous cars driving through poorly maintained alleys.

In April, the city's zoning administrator, Walter Tellez, determined the use of streets and alleys for automobile maneuvering would no longer be permitted in cases with five or more parking spaces. Instead, these projects would have to install landscaped parking lots on site.

Because this decision would effectively prevent them from continuing to build mini-dorms like they had been doing, the Teufels filed an appeal with the Board of Adjustment. Represented by the law firm of Lewis and Roca, they argued that Tellez had illegally amended, not clarified, the Land Use Code.

The board didn't agree, meaning the builders would either have to redesign their projects or abandon them. Stung by the decision, the Teufels filed suit in Superior Court.

While they declined to comment for this story--and they reportedly told their lawyer to do likewise--the Teufels legal argument is simple. In his complaint, their attorney, John Hinderaker, states Tellez exceeded his authority in rendering his decision. Because of that, Hinderaker argues, his client's projects meet code requirements and must be approved.

In her reply, Senior Assistant City Attorney Viola Romero-Wright stresses that Hinderaker used the wrong type of pleading. Based on that, and since she states the city "has no legal duty to approve development plans that are not in compliance with the (Land Use Code)," she thinks the whole complaint should be tossed out. The case is scheduled to be heard next month in court.

Meanwhile, Kathleen Dunbar thinks the rising price of Tucson real estate may provide one solution to the mini-dorm epidemic. "The market place has almost taken care of the problem," she says hopefully. "They don't pencil out anymore."

Indicating there has been a lot of screaming between her and the Teufels over the issue, Dunbar believes the younger man may be changing his mind. But she also adds of the two, "They think they're improving the neighborhood by bringing in 12 students."

At the same time, Dunbar remains frustrated at the city's inability to administratively prevent the construction of any more of the units. She wants to see the Land Use Code redone so it will stop mini-dorms completely.

"I don't know how to do it," she admits. "We've played with everything (to find a solution), and everyone wants a magic wand. But we still live in the United States with private property rights."