How a zoning law could make people homeless – Current Events Q1 2020 – Affordable Housing, Part 1

Photo by Dean Bennett on Unsplash

Last month Penn Live reported on a PA Commonwealth Court appeal ruling that took place January 10th, saying that the ruling said, “Should spell doom for a long-running, but apparently never officially permitted boarding house,” which is located in the far southeastern corner of East Lampeter Township. Perhaps even more importantly, Penn Live said, the closure, “could also set the tenants scrambling for new accommodations.”  What the article was referring to was the potential eviction of 14 tenants, because of a zoning law.  What happened?

Let me tell you the story.  In so doing, I’m going to weave together stories reported by Penn Live and Lancaster Newspapers.  Here goes:

The owner of the boardinghouse, Granny N Pops LLC, bought the property in June 2015. It had been operating as a boarding house for 25 years prior to that. The problem was that the new owners never checked with the township as to whether a boarding house was permitted in the Village Commercial Zoning District where the property sits.

Instead, they relied on the seller’s assurances that township officials knew about the use of the 1.3-acre site, which was advertised for sale as a “multi-family property with 13 units.”

Nearly a year later, in May 2016, the East Lampeter Township zoning board issued a violation notice, because the boarding house should not have been permitted in that kind of commercial zone. Current and prior owners insisted the township knew the boarding house was there for decades. Granny N Pops, which is owned by an adjacent property owner, argued, therefore, that the previous long-term use of the site as a boarding house should require the township to issue a variance allowing that use to continue.

So they petitioned for a variance with the East Lampeter Township Zoning Board.  The owners, who bought the property for $460,000 and made over $130,000 in improvements, testified at the 2017 zoning hearing that they did not research the property’s zoning because it had been operating as a boarding house for years and a real estate broker represented the property as a boarding house.

The zoning board voted 2-1 to deny the owners’ request for a variance.  The board’s majority said anyone “who purchases property based on the representations of the seller, rather than making an independent investigation of the true status of the property, proceeds at his or her own risk.”

Thus, that year, the township voted to shut down the facility.  The owners appealed in Lancaster County court, and the County Court upheld the township zoning decision. So the owners appealed to PA Commonwealth Court, and last month the court ruled that “A landowner is duty-bound to check the zoning status of a property prior to purchase.” The judge providing the ruling wrote that, “This court is sensitive to the impact this decision will have on the property’s vulnerable tenants who shall be forced to find other housing. Despite such concerns, the court is bound to adhere to well-established case law and precedent.”

The owners of Granny N Pops Boardinghouse have said that they might appeal to the State Supreme Court.  The East Lampeter Township manager said last month that if the owners don’t appeal further, the township will notify the owner that they have to stop using the property as a boarding house. 

I am telling you this story because with this blog post I am starting a new series about Current Events.  It won’t be a consecutive week-by-week series, but instead one week per quarter, and I won’t pick the topic until that week, striving for something from the headlines.  It could be local, national or international.  The goal will be to apply biblical principles to what is going on in our world. This first topic is local, as the property and building of my congregation, Faith Church, is located in East Lampeter Township.

The purpose of every current events post will be to examine how Christians can think about a that particular event.  In this case, the issues are complex.  Clearly the owners did not follow the zoning law.  It seems that theirs was not a willful, intentional breaking of the law, but it was a violation nonetheless.  And the zoning board as well as the various courts are justified in upholding the law.  So is that the end of the story?  Is that all Christians should care about?  That the law was upheld? 

What if the law is not just?  And what about mercy?  Should there be exceptions to the rule?

Think about the most vulnerable people in this story, the tenants.  Even the state judge called them vulnerable, aware of the reality that, if appeals fail, those tenants will likely have to find other housing, and may not have the means to do so.  Affordable housing is hard to come by in our area, and Granny N Pops’ boardinghouse was providing an affordable option for tenants like Charles Adams who Lancaster Newspapers quotes as saying, “If I have to move, I don’t know where I’m going to go.”  Adams, who has lived at the boarding home for 17 years, remarked, “I don’t really have money to find another place.” 

The owners of the boardinghouse said “We give (our tenants) an opportunity to get restarted.  Some of them have had legal issues. They come out (of jail.) They don’t have much. We give everybody a chance.” 

Another tenant, Lonny Pacana, a smorgasbord dishwasher who receives Social Security disability, said he has no Plan B if evicted. “I have nowhere to go,” he said.

Ron, a two-year resident of the boardinghouse who did not provide his last name because of a criminal record, said he had no idea where he would live if evicted.  “Probably my car again,” he said. “I have a hard time finding a place because of my credit and background.”

This reminds me of House of Ruth, which is owned Potter’s House in Leola.  Potter’s House is a discipleship ministry, helping men transition from incarceration.  Knowing that there was a need for women coming out of jail, too, Potter’s House purchased a home in the Forest Hills neighborhood to the west of Leola, hoping to minister to women there. Neighbors caught wind of the plan and began to oppose it strongly.  They didn’t want formerly incarcerated women living near them. 

There are many people struggling with housing in our area.  Rents and home costs have consistently gone up over the years.  We’ve learned about people living out of their cars, and Wal-Mart graciously allows them to park there overnight.  You may have heard that a number of people live in hotels to the point where one had been a school bus stop.  In the past year one of those hotels along Route 30 was razed, displacing people.  Where did they go?  And an even better question, what is God’s heart for this?

Check back in to the next post as we seek to learn God’s heart for affordable housing in our area.

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids, Tyler, Connor, Jared and Meagan. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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