Do Group Homes Harm Austin Neighborhoods?

by Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX on December 2, 2010 · 20 comments

We have a listing that is a good candidate for a Group Home, and we’re marketing it as such. This has earned the ire of some of the individuals living in the University Hills neighborhood in NE Austin. Let’s have a look at an emailed received from one of the concerned neighbors:

Do NOT advertise the property for sale at 3403 Loyola Lane as a “group home” in your listing. You are contributing to a major problem that exists currently in Austin and more specifically our neighborhood. Do you advertise other properties in your listings as potential “group homes?” No you don’t—I went and looked at your Crossland Team website. Your website says that you’ve been “Serving Austin since 1993,” I’m sorry, but what you’re doing isn’t serving Austin—it’s serving yourself. My assumption is that you have no idea what actually goes on in these group homes, you’re simply trying to make a quick buck. I’m betting that you wouldn’t list a property on your street as a potential “group home” would you?

It’s appalling that you would consider putting that under this listing—it shows that your concerns aren’t about making the University Hills neighborhood a better place. Your name was posted in an email circulated through our neighborhood listserv as the agent on this listing. I kindly request you revise the description for the property and remove that portion of the listing. What you are doing is devaluing the properties in the University Neighborhood and that is not good business for someone in the real estate industry. Especially someone that may hope for repeat customers in the area.

And my reply:

Thank you for expressing your concerns about our listing at 3403 Loyola. You obviously care about your neighborhood and fear that a group home would have a negative impact on your community.

This particular property is unique in that it has 6 bedrooms, 3 full baths and 3 living areas, plus a screened rear porch and an enclosed garage. It’s so large in fact that it doesn’t draw interest from the type of buyers who typically seek smaller homes in the University Hills neighborhood, and who have no use for a 6 bdrm, 3 bath home. Also, the home’s proximity directly next to an apartment complex and on a busy street near a busy intersection makes it less appealing to the typical buyer.

Due to these factors, and the excellent proximity to a bus stop and walking distance to HEB, the home is a good candidate for group home use, possibly by a church group, assisted home care, artists co-op, vegan co-op, etc. Also potentially a transitional living home for those with cognitive challenges such as mild retardation or autism who need a middle step toward integration into society and independent living. These sort of living arrangements are in fact beneficial and important to the social fabric of all communities.

I know that Austin in general, and more specifically the “Cultural Creatives” that are drawn to the older transitioning neighborhoods, are sympathetic to and supportive of inviting diverse and different types of people into their communities and lives. You, as an individual, obviously feel differently, but I will assume you don’t speak for your entire neighborhood.

Ultimately, it is up to the potential buyer to determine whether the proper zoning changes can be obtained which would permit group home use under the rules and codes of the city of Austin. We will continue to market the property as a potential group home.

The neighbors I’ve heard from thus far simply want the phrase “potential group home” removed from the comments in the listing. However, as listing agents, our fiduciary responsibility to our seller requiers that we use our best efforts and experience in marketing the property. That would include trying to attract potential buyers based on a specific use.

There are in fact improperly operated group homes in Austin that are not properly zoned and/or not in compliance with the requirements of operating a group home. These type of rouge establishments or illegal boarding houses represent a code enforement issue that can be reported on the City of Austin Code Compliance website. If there is illegal activity originating from any property, whether it’s a group home or not, that is a law enforcement issue to be handled by the police.

From what I can gather, the angry neighbors assume that, as “greedy selfish Realtors”, we’d gladly sell the home to someone intending to establish an illegal setup that will harm the neighborhood. That’s not the case, and our seller would certainly not want that either. We do, however, assume that legitimate operators of group homes have difficulty finding suitable candidate properties, and we’d like our listing to be easier to find by a legitimate operator seeking candidate group home properties, thus the inclusion of the keywords “group home” in the listing.

I don’t know if the several University Hills neighbors who have shared their ire with us thus far are just the tip of the iceberg or if they represent just a vocal few and that will be the end of it. I sort of hope it stirs up a lot of attention because we’re getting NO SHOWINGS on our listing and any added exposure and promotion would be appreciated. Those of you in University Hill, call your friends and family and help us find a buyer! That would be a win/win.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Garreth Wilcock December 2, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Hey Steve,

I agree that it’s your fiduciary duty to represent the best interests of the seller and that means getting it sold! Any extra attention that your listing gets will hopefully help it reach a wider audience of potential buyers.

Group Homes are somewhat of a hot topic in the area – the neighbors are concerned for the group home residents and the level of care they provide, which is ultimately the responsibility of the home owner (since group homes don’t appear to be regulated). It’s an emotive issue.

You’re bang on – the best thing to do for the neighbors concerned about a new group home in the neighborhood would be to find another buyer who had different plans for it.

The market in the area is struggling somewhat in my opinion, which leads to great value such as your listing. I’ll see if we can’t find a buyer for you!

2 Davey McEathron December 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Group homes in U Hills has been a hot button issue for at least a few years in the neighborhood. It doesn’t mean all group homes are bad, but it also means that many of the residents in the hood don’t want to see more (potential) problems added. Group homes have earned a bad name for a reason. An artist co-op would be great, a halfway house would not. So, maybe you can list it as a great opportunity for a co-op – or something that doesn’t have a negative connotation to it.

If you were listing your neighbors house that had the same statistics, I guarantee you would not list it in this same manner.

Do your fiduciary responsibilities outweigh your civic responsibilities? Please, no more fuel on the fire in University Hills.

Kindly,
Davey McEathron

3 Chuck December 2, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Howdy!
I live in the area and this home is most certainly a group home if I have ever seen one. I wish we could use the euphemism “vegan co-op”. How nice, but no-This is a group home. Could you try selling the apartment complex next door please!

4 Rolla McCrary December 2, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I live in the University Hills Neighborhood. I have had the “pleasure” of seeing a neighboring rental house go from a single family renting it to being rented as a group home or half way house. I contacted the Austin Zoning group. What I was told was that once a building passes the original zoning requirements, it is a done deal. If the housing is repurposed (group home or half way house) it does not violate any zoning codes. The only time any action will be taken is when the current occupants become a problem or if the number of occupants exceeds the capacity of the structure. Other than that we are stuck with the repurposing of the structure.
I would like to see a Zoning Ordinance that requires an equal distribution of half way and group home through out all residential zip codes.

5 Steve Crossland, Austin REALTOR December 2, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Thanks for your comments:

Garreth – yes, please bring us a buyer. I know you’ve previewed the house and seen how it’s directly next to the apartment complex and how close it is to Loyola and Manor. Even though it has a terrific back yard on an almost half acre lot (which creates great gardening space) that backs up to Little Walnut Creek, the apartment complex next door is the dominant view from the back yard. For many buyers, this is all a deal breaker without even factoring the large number of bedrooms.

Davey: I hear your concerns. I’d understand the neighborhood resistance if it was a house located in the core of a neighborhood, among 100% other residential homes. But this is literally the last residential home eastbound on Loyola approaching Manor.

Chuck: Sound like you know the specific house.

Rolla: There are in fact restrictions on the number of people that can occupy a single family home as a residential property. At present, I believe the limit is 6 unrelated adults per house. More than that would be subject to code violation.

Steve

6 Will Scott December 2, 2010 at 4:56 pm

As someone who lives a few blocks from this address in University Hills, I would love to see a church group or artists’ co-op move in!

But once the house is zoned for group living, that zoning is hard to remove. So it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a half-way house. Now, I am not opposed at all to such housing at all (those residents are in a bad situation and need our support, not a bunch of NIMBY). But in practice there are two big problems. 1) These group homes are not well regulated so they are often run by slumlords who don’t take care of the place or make sure the residents are getting the support they need and behaving properly. 2) University Hills already has way more than its fair share of such housing, so we already bear the burden of such group homes much more than the rest of Austin.

I don’t begrudge you the “great for a group home!” listing; I know how tough it is to sell houses right now, and it’s not your fault that University Hills already has group home problems. But these problems are why the neighbors are getting so upset. Anything you or your seller can do to avoid bringing another such “bad” group home into the neighborhood would be greatly appreciated, and go a long way towards keeping University Hills a good place to live and good place to do real estate business.

7 Ed Neuhaus December 2, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Steve,

Nice article, and I agree with both sides of the issue. I have a few group homes in my neighborhood. The two I know of are for individuals who have mental or physical disabilities, and we have had many problems with the people who are placed in these homes. While the homes do a service to the community I wish they were located somewhere else.

I also agree that you have a duty to your client to sell the property. Having seen your ad, your article, and the comments, I worry your advertisement is describing the people who should buy or live in the property and not the actual property. I would suggest changing your ad to keep you out of the discrimination suit. I had a client who got sued for advertising a property as “perfect for a small family”. I would change your ad and avoid the trouble.

8 Erin Lomers December 2, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Steve,

I certainly appreciate the problems that you would have in selling that particular house. I know the house as well. Perhaps it can be justified that because it sits next to the apartment complex it would make a fine ‘group home.’

Please keep in mind though that the residents of this neighborhood care deeply about what happens here or you wouldn’t be hearing from anyone on this. There has been a neighborhood task force to get rid of these un-regulated group homes for years. I live on Loyola two doors down from a ‘group home’ and there used to be one across the street from me. As a neighbor to a group home, I can say that the ‘group homes’ around me do not provide a valuable service to the people living in them in any way. These people live in conditions that are entirely unacceptable and are often not provided with the basic things that they need to live successfully (food, medicine, clothing, etc,). The people that ‘manage’ the group home, if you can even call it that, come in about once a month in their Lexus’ and pick up the occupants social security checks and then leave. I have had people knock on my door from these homes asking for food, because they have none in their ‘home.’ I literally see police, ambulances and fire trucks pulled up to the house a few times a week. As you suggest, I make reports to the police about activity that should not be happening in these homes, including too many people in a home, people being forced to live in un-air conditioned garages, and… I could go on and on and on. Immediate neighbors to the home next to me have even held meetings with the police about these homes. However, we have been told all we can do to change the situation is to call everytime we see something. They come out, but they can’t do anything about the overall situation, only the current problem at hand. Just for reference purposes, there were 17 people living in the house across the street at one point in time. So, yes, tell me as everyone else has that we need to call the police. Trust me, we do.

There is no current law in Austin that regulates group homes, as I am currently aware. I’m sure my fellow neighbors could go into further detail on this, but basically, Texas Legislature passed a bill that each city could finance a law that would place regulations on these homes. However, Austin has not passed this on a city level because they don’t want to spend the money.

The real losers in all this is not the neighborhood. It’s the people that live in these homes because they have nowhere else to go. They live in poor conditions without proper medication because of selfish group home managers who take advantage of the disadvantaged.

What I would ask from you is that you re-consider changing the wording of your advertisement, so as not to encourage greedy investors to come in and put another ‘group home’ (as I KNOW them to be) in place. Would I be okay with a church group, assisted home care, artists co-op, vegan co-op, etc? Absolutely, but in my mind and in the minds of the investors that I know are out there and are the ones searching those key words, a ‘group home’ is purely a place for the investors to make a quick buck at the expense of humans.

Please do a little research on the group homes in this neighborhood. I have not one good thing to be say about ‘group homes’ in this neighborhood. I hope that you never have the displeasure of having someone knock at your door begging for food because their ‘group home’ manager hasn’t made sure there is food in the home. I hope you are never woken up in the middle of the night several times a week because the group home has police, ambulances and fire trucks out front, again.

Trust me, I do not speak for the whole neighborhood. I am actually not one to usually speak up at all. But, I do know the harmful effects a ‘group home’ can have on the people who live in them.

I do hope you sell the home. I just hope you sell it to a church group, assisted home care, artists co-op, vegan co-op, etc. and NOT an investor looking to put in a ‘group home’ in the sense that I have come to know it as. Perhaps advertising it as a great co-op opportunity would be a better way to sell the home. It’s your perogative though.

Kind regards,
Erin Lomers

9 Carol Combs December 2, 2010 at 6:31 pm

There are many, many people in University Hills who oppose group homes. I live up the hill from the house under discussion. This is definitely still in the neighborhood. I do not consider myself living on the fringe. I have been harassed by residents of group homes. I have had them come panhandling to my door. I no longer feel I can walk on Loyola because of the number of group homes that are there. I think University Hills has far more than its share of group homes. Many of them are unlicensed, unsupervised, dumping grounds. I know the family that has owned that house for many years. I know the parents have died, but I also know the grown children. I cannot believe they would wish this on the neighborhood they grew up in.

Carol

10 Erin Lomers December 2, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Oh and one other note.
From your note:
I know that Austin in general, and more specifically the “Cultural Creatives” that are drawn to the older transitioning neighborhoods, are sympathetic to and supportive of inviting diverse and different types of people into their communities and lives. You, as an individual, obviously feel differently, but I will assume you don’t speak for your entire neighborhood.

To your above statement, I have to say that you mis-read the context on my fellow neighbor’s e-mail and drew the inappropriate conclusion that he doesn’t want diversity in the nieghborhood. I do welcome diversity and I am sure my neighbor does as well. But, our group homes, as I stated previously certainly don’t harbor positive diversity. They allow criminals to take advantage of people who are unable to help themselves.

And lastly, to the code enforcement- we’ve tried. Austin won’t handle the issues properly. I’m not saying this is your fault, but don’t assume that we aren’t already doing those things.

11 Randy Case December 2, 2010 at 7:17 pm

To answer the question in your headline “Do Group Homes Harm Austin Neighborhoods?”, I’d have to say that the answer is they can and usually do. They certainly don’t help. Currently group homes are unregulated in Texas. A resident of University Hills, Joan Bartz, has been working with the city of Austin and the Texas legislation for years in an attempt to get some type of regulation for the proliferation of group homes in our neighborhood with limited success.
Here is a quote from the article in the Austin American/Statesman:
“With no one checking regularly on conditions, the homes can be unsanitary. “The general consensus is that some people will not send their dogs to go live in a board and care,” said Marilyn Hartman, a spokeswoman with the Austin chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
They also can be dangerous. In February, Austin police arrested Calvin Shepard, charging him with raping a woman who lived in a Northeast Austin boarding home he operated. The woman had run out of her pain medication and, according to the arrest affidavit, Shepard told her he would give her some if she had sex with him. When she refused, Shepard raped her, the affidavit said. His next court hearing is scheduled for late September.
The homes exact a public cost, as well. Active in the University Hills Neighborhood Association in Northeast Austin, Joan Bartz has tried to get regulators to pay attention to the drain placed on the city’s police, fire and ambulance services by what she calls “rogue homes,” including one until recently located across the street. “At times our cove resembled a staging area for some emergency,” she said.
Since 2008, public records show that Austin police have received 622 calls for service to five boarding home locations McKinney said she had managed. “People don’t realize the magnitude of the problem,” said Bartz.”
You can read the rest of the article here: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:9DbEfgqhnd4J:www.statesman.com/search/content/news/stories/local/2009/08/30/0830board.html+statistics+%22group+homes%22+austin+tx+statesman+bartz&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us
Because these boarding homes are unlicensed, there is no way of knowing precisely how many there are. There are 11 boarding houses within a 3 block radius of my home. I think you can understand why I feel that this is excessive. Some of them are well-run, but many are not.
We residents of University Hills and Windsor Park love our neighborhood just as you love yours and want what’s best for it. Unfortunately, group homes have proven themselves to be a detriment in most cases. We would hope that you, as a Realtor, would also want whats best for your current and potential customers. Removing that line about group homes in your listing would be a positive step in that direction.
With regards to your comment that you have had no interest in the property, let me pose a question to you: Could it be that the lack of interest in the property is due to the reputation of the University Hills neighborhood because of the proliferation of crime due to, among other things, group homes?

12 Steve Crossland, Austin REALTOR December 2, 2010 at 10:15 pm

We’ve removed the “group home” term from the listing comments.

The additional comments and information above were informative. Like everyone, we don’t always know what we don’t know. The initial message from the first few neighbors we heard from didn’t sink in amidst the attacks, threats and generic Realtor insults. The comments offered up here along with the link to the Statesmen story were very helpful and effective in explaining the depth and nature of the problem you all face.

So, we’re willing to listen and learn. The term “group home” never has had a negative connotation for me because my only exposure to group homes has been positive, or neutral. In fact, at the NARPM (National Association of Residential Property Managers) convention Sylvia and I attended in Seattle in October this year, our organization made a large donation to a group home in California that helps autistic adults live independently. The director, a case worker and a resident were all there to receive the donation. It was a big deal. Very inspiring. That’s what I think of when hearing the term “group home”.

Obviously for University Hills, “Group Home” means something very different and to which I had not been exposed. We’ll come up with a different strategy for marketing our listing.

Steve

13 Beth December 3, 2010 at 3:41 am

Have you considered promoting it as student housing? All of the advantages listed would be great for university students. i know when i was in college this is exactly the size and location we could use and afford!

14 Davey McEathron December 3, 2010 at 8:01 am

Steve,

Thanks for listening and caring. We all appreciate it.

Good luck with the sale of this home.

Davey McEathron

15 Garreth Wilcock December 3, 2010 at 9:09 am

I think Beth is spot on – it’s close to the 37 bus and would be an easy commute for a UT student. It would be great if a group of residents could pool their resources to buy the home as an investment and then rent it out to whoever they want to.

16 Cassandra December 3, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Steve, you are officially my hero. If that reply back didn’t make the letter’s author feel like the worst person on earth, nothing will. I felt guilty while reading it and I don’t even agree with it. :-) I know some organizations that would probably be interested, and I will definitely circulate the listing to them. Keep up the good work!

17 Carol Burk-Braxton December 3, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Thank you for listening to real concerns of my neighbors and myself and making the change in your listing.

I do believe that your earlier characterization of UH residents who had shared comments opposing your listing as angry is highly inaccurate. We care about our neighborhood and want to maintain as much appeal as we experienced when we moved here 10, 15, 20, 30, or 35 years ago…yes there are many of us who have long histories in this area and we are diverse, caring, and creative people who are also often highly educated. But we have a history of seeing our neighborhood treated with much less concern and respect than other attractive neighborhoods in our city enjoy.

For example, I’m sure that this is not the first 6 bedroom house you have marketed. Have you suggested that all other 6 bedroom homes would make good group homes?

The fact is that in the 43 years since this home was built, it has never been a group home, but a single family home. Why now would that need to change? Many homes in our neighborhood are large and have 4, 5, or more bedrooms. They are home to single families. Demographics of families may be changing, but there are still families who enjoy having space. Clearly, the right buyer has not yet arrived. But in the current market, that is true for numerous homes.

I do hope that you find that right buyer soon. I suspect that if you tout many of the positive characteristics of our neighborhood, you will have better luck in reaching a buyer who can be excited about what this area has to offer and who will be excited about the opportunity to join us.

18 Carol Burk-Braxton December 3, 2010 at 8:14 pm

As I posted my comment, I was returned to the top of this blog which still refers to the home on Loyola as a candidate to be a group home and your ongoing plans to market it as such. Also in the description of the home on your website tonight, the group home reference remained. You stated earlier in this blog that that reference would be eliminated. When?

19 Randy Case December 4, 2010 at 6:48 am

Thank you, Steve, for listening and understanding. We appreciate it and wish you luck on selling that house.

20 Sylvia Crossland December 4, 2010 at 9:38 am

I want to thank everyone for shedding the light about the “group home” downfalls. Since two days ago, we have taken all the “group home” wording out of the mls and our website and will discontinue marketing it as such. We definitely don’t want to contribute to a negative influence on a neighborhood because this does affect all of Austin. The subject home was bought by my uncle in the mid seventies and my cousins grew up in this home. I have many childhood memories of playing there and having family gatherings. The apartments next door were there when my uncle bought the house, but I think the family fell in love with this home because of it’s large size and the proximity to the creek which I understand flows all year round and has been a great source of entertainment to the children as they grew up. Please spread the word about the positive attributes of this home and send anyone interested to us. We are not “money grubbing Realtors” and would like to see a new family in this home that can enjoy it and be a nice addition to the neighborhood. Happy holidays to everyone!

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