When he moved into a basement apartment with his wife and two babies just a few blocks from BYU campus, he didn’t know the apartment he was moving into was illegal.
“What can I do?” Isai Mercado, a computer science student from Mexico, said, shrugging his shoulders. A neighbor told him his housing situation was technically illegal after he had already signed a year-long contract.
According to Gary McGinn, the director of community development, this is an issue that Provo City runs into quite often. Homeowners will buy a property near campus and rent it out to multiple families, often students, when the property is only zoned for a single family.
Although the responsibility lay with the homeowner to use their property in accordance with the law, innocent tenants like Mercado can be affected by the consequences.
“It doesn’t matter if you pay all kinds of money to live in a place that the homeowner told you you could live in if it’s illegal,” McGinn said. “They misled you.”
If the zoning department becomes aware of an illegal zoning situation, the homeowner must come in compliance with the law.
“If what they are doing is illegal, it’s illegal,” McGinn said. This often requires tenants to leave their apartments, despite the contracts they signed.
“I’m not worried, but it seems weird to me that the contract has to break,” Mercado said. “If one day the landlord comes and says we have neighbors complaining, I signed a contract that I would be living here for one year.”
Gary Briggs, manager of the BYU Off-Campus Housing Office, said all BYU-approved houses are required to submit a waiver form stating they are zoned correctly before BYU will approve them, leaving most single undergraduate students unaffected.
However, this can be an issue for married and graduate students who are charged with the responsibility of finding their own housing outside of BYU restrictions.
“Don’t tell them where you live, or they’ll come looking,” said Tim Morrison, a man who has lived in one of these uniquely-zoned neighborhoods near BYU campus for at least 50 years. He said his entire street is zoned for single-family homes, but nearly every home has at least two families occupying the upstairs and basement.
But as far as he knows, the Provo zoning department has never done anything about it.
“When you drive down the street and you look at a house, you can’t tell just by looking at it whether it’s a duplex or not or whether there are two families living in a home,” McGinn said.
Couches being stored on the porch, too many cars parked on the road and an excess of garbage are among the things that spark complaints from neighbors can get tenants and their landlords in trouble.
“If people are quiet and fit in and they are not parking everywhere and they don’t have trash everywhere, they go unnoticed,” McGinn said.
However, he still recommends that tenants become educated about zoning regulations before they sign rental contracts.
“A smart landlord is checking out the person they are renting to. If the landlord is doing that with the student, the student probably ought to check out who their landlord is,” he said.
He recommended that students who are signing a rental contract first ask the landlord if they have a rental leasing agreement. Or better yet, they should go to the city and find out from city experts.