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Seeking some wiggle room

MEDFORD — A dispute between the city and a property owner over renting rooms in a single-family residence could have implications for affordable housing statewide.

Bianca Petrou, interim director of the Medford Planning Department, said the city code requires the owner of a single-family dwelling to get special permission to offer lodging for compensation, which qualifies the home as a boarding house.

"A boarding house requires a conditional-use permit," she said.

Lenore Drake, chairwoman of the Medford Housing and Community Development Commission, said the commission wants to change the code language.

"It's really an affordable housing option to have rooms available in houses," she said. "However, the city addresses it could affect the rest of the state.

"It's kind of a quagmire."

The issue came to light because of a house on South Columbus Avenue that has a detached two-story addition. The addition has four bedrooms, each with its own entrance and bathroom, but no kitchen.

The owner, Donna Barboza, lives in Texas and learned there was no written approval of the use when she listed the property for sale last year.

"I wanted it documented to be legal," she said.

Todd Pfau, 57, a disabled Army veteran, is one of the tenants. He said rent is $450 monthly including utilities, and he does all his cooking in a microwave oven.

He said without the room rental, he'd be living at a veterans' domiciliary or be out on the streets.

"This is all I can afford," he said.

Bill Earl, a local builder and real estate agent, built the addition in 2003. A former member of Medford's Planning Commission and Site Plan and Architectural Commission boards, Earl said he received verbal approval from both the planning and building departments for the unique arrangement. But there's no documentation of the conversations.

"The city has come down with the position that you can't rent a room," he said.

Earl said a boarding house is a commercial business, and the property owner would have to request a conditional use permit in a public hearing. The application fee is $950, and there's no guarantee the application would be accepted.

Earl said he already received approval, though City Attorney John Huttl contends the occupancy permit does not allow Earl to rent out the rooms.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, said prohibiting room rentals would eliminate a popular affordable housing option.

On Friday Atkinson carried a minority report on a proposed housing bill in the legislative session that stated, "The State or a local government may not discriminate against a homeowner by requiring the homeowner to obtain a permit in order to rent to a tenant a room within a single-family home having six or fewer bedrooms."

The measure failed, he said.

Petrou said while the city requires the special permit, it's not a rule that's enforced.

"I am not aware of anyone ever being required to get a conditional use permit in order to rent a room ... Nobody has told Bill Earl he needs to come in and get a conditional use permit," said Petrou.

Atkinson said he's worried about the statewide implications, especially for college towns. He also said room rentals are an affordable alternative when there is a shortage of work-force housing.

"I believe there's a problem with how the city code is being treated and how Mr. Earl is being treated," he said. "Here's a guy who made the repairs to a home and was given the OK. The city changed its mind."

Reach reporter Meg Landers at 776-4481 or e-mail mlanders@mailtribune.com.

Todd Pfau lives in one of four studio-type apartments in a west Medford complex attached to a single-family dwelling unit. The city says the apartments, which lack kitchens, are the equivalent of rented rooms and are not legal unless the owner applies for a conditional-use permit as a boarding house. - Bob Pennell