The City Council passed a motion Thursday establishing the University Area Off-Street Parking Overlay, making permanent the Interim Zoning District aimed at curbing the spread of investor-owned “doubles-to-dorms.”
Since the restrictions were temporarily established in March 2020, the overlay has expanded geographically while becoming more limited in scope and application.
The overlay still requires one off-street parking space for each newly created bedroom in the area, but now it applies only to new homes or renovations with more than four bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms per unit. It also features carve-outs for homes with a homestead exemption and for affordable housing projects.
In addition, it only applies to residential districts. And to reduce stormwater runoff, each new parking space must be permeable.
At the same time, the overlay area was expanded by about 3 square miles at the request of neighborhood leaders, said District A Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who worked with 10 different neighborhood groups to develop the zoning restrictions.
The expanded overlay includes Leonidas, Hollygrove, Dixon and Gert Town to the north; the Audubon and Black Pearl neighborhoods to the south; and Broadmoor to the east. The expansion is intended to protect those areas from a potential flood of student-housing conversions, as developers are stymied in the University section, and to discourage investor-driven conversions in the Xavier University area.
The overlay creates a district within the base zoning with requirements designed to deter developers from transforming historic homes into upscale student housing — often created by building out to the setbacks or adding a second story. The national trend is referred to locally as doubles-to-dorms, or D2Ds.
The D2Ds are single- and double-family homes converted into mini-dormitories for students. Developers typically add multiple bedrooms and bathrooms in a dormitory-style layout, expanding the intensity and footprint of homes.
The conversions not only strain the city’s fragile infrastructure, neighbors say, they harm the architectural integrity and social fabric of neighborhoods.
“These neighborhoods are already dense,” Giarrusso said on Thursday. “Converting single and double-family homes in dense areas to mini-dormitories drives up the cost of existing housing stock, irrevocably converts homes for families into student living, stresses existing infrastructure, and does not support owners and renters who live there.”
These homes become commercial property when they are converted to student housing, Giarrusso said, and the city routinely applies restrictions to commercial properties that harm or threaten New Orleanians’ quality of life.
“The commercial development there is supposed to be limited and support the neighborhoods,” Giarrusso said.
The City Council unanimously overturned the recommendation from the City Planning Commission, which voted to reject the overlay in July.
“The commission believes that the proposed increase in parking requirements would have harmful effects in the affected neighborhoods that would eventually ripple throughout the city,” city planner Paul Cramer told the council on Thursday.
Affordable housing is a primary concern on both sides of the issue. While opponents of the overlay say it will increase housing costs and drive families out of the city, supporters say the D2Ds are already doing just that.
Once converted, these homes typically do not appeal to anyone other than the wealthiest students, neighbors say. “It permanently alters the bones of these homes,” Giarrusso said. “It prevents students and families from later occupying them.”
The properties generally bring in $1,000 or more per bedroom per month, increasing rental costs for entire neighborhoods. Giarrusso pointed to a two-bedroom Burthe Street home that was converted to a 12-bedroom that brings in $144,000 a year. With that income potential in mind, investors drive the price of available homes out of the range of a most families.
Opponents say that requiring parking is the wrong approach to take and would only further increase the cost of housing. Cramer told the council the overlay also “encourages out-of-scale suburban-style residential development that prioritizes the automobile.”
Parking requirements are not relevant to much of the newly created district, he said, noting that 27% of Hollygrove residents, according to the American Community Survey, do not own a vehicle.
Maxwell Ciardullo of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center lent reserved support to the amended overlay, saying the potential harm is reduced with changes such as the carve-outs for affordable housing, developments with four or fewer bedrooms, and owner-occupied homes.
“We’re no advocates for opportunistic developers.” Ciardullo said at Thursday’s hearing. “However, we have been opposed to this — in large part because we don’t believe parking restrictions are the way to solve development issues.”
The key, he said, is to narrowly target the restrictions so that they apply only to commercial developers. “I seems like the ultimate solution here is we need more student housing,” Ciardullo added.
Giarrusso said the overlay is likely to be tweaked in the future, especially as the city learns how it is affecting the additional neighborhoods and how developers respond.
The councilman said he and his staff have been working with multiple neighborhood associations and other groups for more than a year to develop the overlay. “It shows what happens,” he said, “when people are willing to work cooperatively with the spirit of compromise.”
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.