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Housing In Ann Arbor

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Cellar apartments or bedrooms are illegal in Ann Arbor, as well as the whole state of Michigan, yet many people pay high rent to live in them. Cellars are defined as having 50% or more of the outside walls being below ground level. This differs from a basement which is defined as having 50% or more of the outside walls being above ground level.

Since most cellars were never built or designed to be lived in, they cause many problems. They are damp in the summer, cold in the winter, flood in the spring, and the sewers often back up. Most have inadequate window light, and ventilation. They have low pipes and inadequate electrical service. Bedrooms which are below ground level (below grade) don't have the required emergency escape windows (so in case of a fire the occupants do not have adequate emergency egress).

An unhealthy environment

Heating systems in houses are not designed to heat cellar areas and they don't. Lack of cold air returns prevent air circulation even if a heat supply duet is present. Furnaces normally require a heat supply duet and a cold-air return duet to provide the circulation of air that heats a room. In the winter the cold air settles to the floor and stagnates in the sleeping area. The thermostat upstairs may be a cozy 70 degrees yet the cellar sleeping area may be 60 degrees or less. 

Are Cellar Apartments Illegal?

Cellar dwellars are often unaware of the true cause of their general malaise. Not only do they pay in physical and metal ill health for living in a cellar, they must also pay cash for the privilege and often have a year's lease saying they must stay and pay for the unhealthy environment.

The heating plant (furnace) is voracious in its need for oxygen to burn and can deplete the oxygen supply in a cellar walled off for rooms. The heating plant then tries to suck air in from the outside causing cold drafts. If it can't, the oxygen is depleted to burn and can deplete the oxygen supply in a cellar walled off for rooms. The heater may also build up carbon deposits, become inefficient and create carbon monoxide fumes. Cellar dwellers may get unexplained winter headaches, which are actually caused by these poisonous fumes.

Radon, a colorless, odorless gas which may cause cancer, if found in a home tends to be heavier in the basement area. It leaches in from the ground through the walls and may accumulate in the cellar.

Sunshine, which is essential for health and welfare, seldom permeates to the cellar in fall, winter, and spring. While units may have appeared acceptable in the desperate summer search for an apartment, by midwinter its a different situation. The sunshine no longer reflects in. People tend to spend more time indoors in the winter, so for the cellar occupants, the confined cool damp area increases respiratory problems and often, mild depression can be a result. Headaches may occur, causing irritability and sleeping by the cold floor wears down the body's defenses.

The cellar dweller is often unaware of the true cause of their general malaise. Not only do they pay in physical and mental ill health for living in a cellar, they must also pay cash for the privilege and often have a year's lease saying they must slay and pay for the unhealthy environment.

Are cellar units legal?

The State of Michigan adopted a state housing code (MCLA 125.401 et seq) which prohibits cellar habitation. The Ann Arbor Housing Code was based on the state code and also prohibits cellar use. Section 8-503 of the Ann Arbor Code states quite clearly, "No cellar space shall be used as a habitable room or dwelling unit."

This means cellar units are not legal to rent. Since they are not legal to rent, most lawyers would point out the courts will not enforce a contract based on an illegal act. Consequently, cellar leases should be unenforceable. If they are, cellar dwellers may not be forced to pay rent, and in fact, in some cases, may be owed for back rent already paid out.

The only exception

The only exception may be if the cellar unit was granted a valid "variance" from the Housing Board of Appeals (HBA) in writing. The HBA is a quasi-judicial body that may grant a "specific" variance from the strict application of the law. In order to get a variance there must be a practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship from complying with the law. The Housing Code, Section 8:56 states "A variance may be allowed by the Board only if, in the judgment of the Board, such variance would not violate the intent of this chapter, nor jeopardize public health and safety." A variance, granted by the HBA upon a landlord's request should be specific in granting a variance on grade, ceiling height, or any other non-conforming areas such as light, ventilation, stair height, emergency egress, etc.

There are differing opinions on whether even this type of variance is legal, as the Housing Code states in Section 8-515, "This section shall not be construed so as to permit the Board to authorize the granting of a variance from the requirements of the State Housing Law." The Michigan Housing Act MCLA 125.430, states "no room in the cellar shall be occupied for living purposes."

Existing units

Some employees in the Building Department have felt that any "existing rooms" should be allowed to continue and have refused in the past to enforce the law in regards to them. These officials adopted a "Grandfather Clause" theory whereby anything existing would not be cited as a violation.

This is contrary to the whole purpose of the Housing Code enforcement process. There is no "Grandfather Clause" in the Housing Code, which is the minimal codes for existing units. The Housing Code 8.501 states "this chapter shall apply . . . without regard to whether these were constructed before or after the effective date of the chapter."

Cellar units are therefore not legal if they have been rented for 2 years, or 22 years. The only exception is if they have specific HBA variances.

Example #1: A cellar with a legal (?) HBA variance

The owner of 809 Sybil was cited on 83179 by a city housing inspector for "cellar space being used as a habitable room" and ordered to vacate it. The owner requested a variance from the HBA but his request was denied due to numerous violations. After Consulting with Housing Supervisor William R. Yadlowsky he reapplied and was granted a variance contingent on obtaining a building permit.

The owner obtained a homeowner's permit after swearing on a "Home Owner's Affidavit" that the property "is or will be on completion my place of residence." Most construction work, in order to protect the public, requires trained, licensed, insured contractors to do the actual work. The exception is for a person's own private residence that they live in. That way any mistakes will only affect themselves or their family. The affadavit also says "I...will the the actual work myself." This notarized document includes violation penalties of up to 90 days in jail or $500 fine for violations.

The cellar rooms at 809 Sybil eventually became "legal" but evidently not very habitable since despite the above shenanigans many other code requirements had not been met. New partial walls were put in but no insulation. The rooms had no cold air returns and were cold. The electric code had never been met nor permits obtained.

Tenants complained. A violation letter was written on 4/28/80 stating that "The basement room has not yet been brought up to code." But on 5/8/80, Housing Supervisor Yadlowsky certified the house himself.

Several years later another group of tenants complained about the same problems, after the sewer backed up and flooded the area with feces. This was on 9/12/84 and again on 10/11/84. Many of the conditions had not changed since the Housing Inspection Report dated 4/28/80: the paneling was still coming off the walls, the room was still cold, the portable heater had to be put next to the bed on extension cords, and there was still inadequate electrical service. A violation letter was sent to the owner, Mr. Gopi Jendal on 10/11/84, ordering him to correct these problems and get permits.

The tenants went to the University Mediation Service over the problems and Mr. Jendal attempted to resolve the heat problem by rebating money each month for the cost of the electric portable space heater, on extension cords. This resulted in the continuation of hazardous code violations and potential fire hazards. Apparently no permanent solution to the heating problem was addressed. At some point electrical outlets were added without permits or electrical inspections. This adds further danger in that electrical code violations increase the potential for fires.

It's confusing as to whom, if anyone, recertified the building as Housing Bureau records are conflicting. Is the cellar unit at 809 Sybil legal? It is unclear. The HBA did give a variance conditional on obtaining a building permit, stating "occupancy shall not take place until corrections of all other code violations."

The building permit appears to be improper as this is and was not owner occupied, and the owner did not do the work himself.

There appears to continue to be heating and electrical violations, and in fact it appears that these new rooms never were inspected to see if they meet the new electrical code, as required by law. Yet the unit has continued to be rented out at a healthy profit with little action from the Housing Bureau to correct the problems.


Example #2: How cellar units continue without variances

In the spring of 1983 when a sewer backed up in an illegal apartment at 733 Oakland, #5, causing the tenants to become sick due to fecal and strep bacteria, the tenants complained to the city. Prior to these complaints the building was inspected and then certified by Housing Inspector Peterson. However, Mr. Peterson accordingly noted in the Inspection report "Basement apt. not entered, Black (owner) didn't have keys." When Inspector Peterson returned to the house to inspect the cellar apartment in response to the tenants' complaint, he found two pages worth of violations, with the cellar unit being illegal under city and state codes. He noted, "This unit is to be vacated and remain vacant until it conforms to the Housing Code or gets the necessary variances."

The cellar unit at 733 Oakland was apparently illegally added at some time between 12/66 and 3/70, without the proper building, zoning, electrical, plumbing, or heating permits and had numerous violations of the minimal Housing Code.

At this point, despite Inspector Peterson's two page Housing Inspection Report (5/2/83) ordering compliance, Housing Supervisor William R. Yadlowsky decided not to ask for permits or zoning compliances, or to issue tickets for non-compliance, or ask for for HBA approval of variances, or for the apartment to be vacated, or to follow any normal legal procedures.

The County Health Department had also confirmed fecal and strep bacteria present in the unit. Mr. Yadlowsky sent a letter to the owner, Mr. Duane Black, on 5/16/83, giving him permission to continue renting the unit, although admitting it does not meet the code requirements. In fact, he stated he found the unit dry, although there is no record of his visiting the unit. Subsequently, on 5/31/83 the Housing Bureau granted the owner a Certificate of Occupancy and allowed him to continue to rent the unit even though this violated laws they are charged with enforcing. 833 Oakland was again recertified 10/8/85 by the Department and the unit is currently being rented.

In summary, although 833 Oakland was found to be an illegal unit, not meeting the codes, the Housing Department granted the owner a Certificate of Compliance, therefore refusing the enforce their own codes. The Housing Supervisor has no legal authority whatsoever, to grant variances of the law although our investigation shows it was a common practice. In fact, there appear to be numerous other cases in which units continue to be rented which were granted illegal variances directly by the Housing Department, foregoing the legal process of pursuing a variance from the HBA.

Is your cellar dwelling legal?

Cellar conversions are extremely lucrative for the landlord/speculators that convert them illegally. They get high return with little investment and a significantly higher sales price when the house is sold due to the inflated income from the illegal unit. The naive new owner is often saddled with an expensive problem to correct in the cellar, with little funds to do it. The result is a vicious cycle of inflated rents and sales prices and deteriorating housing. In addition, the unwillingness of the city to enforce cellar apartment regulations allows poor quality and illegal units to continue to be rented to the detriment of the tenants.

The cellar units discussed in this article are but two examples of how and why cellar units are rented contrary to the law. There are numerous other examples all over the city similar to these. Any tenant presently living in a cellar unit can contact the City Housing Bureau (994-2678) for information regarding their unit. Although the Housing Bureau can not readily tell what units have received a legal HBA granted variance, this information is obtainable from Housing records and available to the public.


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