Chapel Hill finds 12 tenants in house, fines landlord $60K

tgrubb@newsobserver.comMarch 4, 2014 

  • The backstory

    Landlords James Bulbrook and Whitney Long hired a contractor in 2007 to build them a house at 135 North St. The couple sought permission in 2010 to make it taller and lived there a few years, sometimes with tenants. As they got older, they decided to move out, keeping the house as rental property, Bulbrook said.

    The town first noticed a problem in April 2011 when a tenant sought residential parking permits for 12 cars. Town staff also got complaints about noise, poor maintenance and the number of tenants and cars at the house.

    Inspections staff said they tried to work with Bulbrook, finally giving him a Jan. 31, 2013, deadline. Staff returned in February 2013 and condemned the property because the issues remained, they said. The couple filed multiple appeals in court and to local and state boards, all of which have been rejected.

— A local property management company was fined $63,500 last year after town inspectors found 12 women living in a single-family house near downtown.

The company hasn’t paid anything yet, town legal adviser Matt Sullivan said.

Carolina Ventures Co. LLC was cited with violating the town’s occupancy rules, which only allow four unrelated people to live in a single-family house.

The company also was cited for state fire-code violations for not meeting commercial standards for a house rented to more than five unrelated people. That can include sprinklers, exit signs and extra alarms and doors.

Carolina Ventures owner and landlord James Bulbrook said he rented the house to four young women but it’s common in Chapel Hill for students to let their friends just move in. Since tenants also have an expectation of privacy, he can’t just rifle through the home to separate the guests from residents, he said.

A June 2011 lease shows four women rented 135 North St. for $3,400 a month. The lease does include a provision allowing the landlord to enter the house for an inspection and to ensure tenants meet their obligations.

Bulbrook said the town doesn’t investigate most occupancy violations, although there’s been a problem for years.

“It’s putting a Band-Aid on it, and you still have this problem of student rentals in town,” he said. “If you’re going to enforce (the rules), everybody needs to follow it. You can’t just single out different places.”

He and his wife, Whitney Long, own 15 houses and condos, many near downtown. Long is a licensed mortgage loan officer and president of Carolina Ventures Mortgage.

Since Bulbrook is also a licensed general contractor, the N.C. Licensing Board for General Contractors is investigating, complaint administrator Susan Sullivan said.

Bulbrook said he’s not responsible for housing-code violations, because someone else built the house before he earned his license.

Sullivan, now the town’s interim executive director for planning and sustainability, said they surveyed several of the couple’s homes. One had occupancy issues that were immediately fixed, he said.

The town changed its penalties last year to charge $100 a day for the first violation and up to $500 a day for three or more in 12 months. The state charges $500 a day for each violation.

The town doesn’t actively seek out violations, but it does investigate when there’s a complaint, Sullivan said. Some renters have been at “significant risk” because of overcrowding or unsafe conditions, he said.

“People need to understand this ordinance is not a way for the town to nitpick businesses or control business in Chapel Hill,” Sullivan said. “It’s a safety issue.”

The town investigated over-occupancy claims at 34 properties last year and fined five property owners, said code enforcement officer Jamie Smith.

 

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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