Week market: Boarding house offers option

In condos, trailers, with her parents, even in a van– Melissa Marsh has experienced just about every possible living arrangement in Charlottesville. For the past few months, she's even resorted to crashing with friends. But there's one way she says she's never lived: by herself.

"It's so expensive," she explains, referring to the area's skyrocketing rents, which have pushed the cost of one-bedroom apartments to as much as $800 per month.

Marsh, a 32-year-old Subway sandwich shop employee, says her life will change for the better come mid-May with the opening of Carlton House, a 10-room boarding house where she and nine other single adults will rent rooms by the week, biweekly, or monthly. Marsh, the first resident to sign on, will serve as "tenant manager," and will handle the cleaning of common areas, distribution of mail, and generally monitoring tenant behavior.

Carlton House owners say they want it known that this is not a home for people with special needs.

"We are a residence; there are no special services," says Barbara Null, who co-founded Carlton House with her business partner, Carolyn Wicker.

Null says the duo, both former mortgage brokers who entered the real estate development biz two years ago, recognized a gap in the housing market and set out to fill it.

For two years, they scoured the city until they found a suitable location: the former Virginia Neurocare building at the corner of Carlton Road and Carlton Ave. The two-story, 4,500-sq.-ft. structure was formerly used as a residence, says Wicker, so it was not difficult to convert it to its new use. A coat of paint, new carpets and furniture in the common areas, as well as improvements to each room's private bath is all it took, she says.

Satyendra Huja, planning guru for the city, says the new boarding house comes not a moment too soon. "There's a need for it," he says, particularly among people who are currently homeless. "I meet many people at the soup kitchen who could use that kind of facility."

Null hopes a variety of people will call it home, if only temporarily. She's hoping to hook up with hospitals to provide visiting doctors with a place to stay while in town. And although some boarding houses have a reputation for being "seedy," she says that description will not fit Carlton House. She and Wicker will screen residents carefully, checking to be sure that each is gainfully employed and will treat their new home with respect. No smoking will be allowed anywhere in the building, and alcohol consumption is permitted only in the private rooms. Also off-limits: overnight guests, including children.

Rates for the rooms range from $135 per week (about $585 per month) for the smallest, up to $160 per week ($690 per month) for the large, upper-level front rooms that have two windows. The price includes shared use of two kitchens and of televisions in common areas. Although those prices may not be much less expensive than the rent for many one-bedroom apartments, Null points out that the cost includes all utilities. In addition, the option of paying week by week makes it "much easier," says Marsh.

Judging from several other businesses in town, the demand is real.

Over on Harris Street, Affordable Efficiency Suites has been offering short-term housing for the past six years, and manager David Hungate says there's no vacancy.

Each fully furnished one-bedroom suite comes with a full kitchen, queen bed, bath, and cable television including HBO. All utilities are also paid, but the price is a bit steeper than for Carlton House: $265 per week, or $935 per month. Tenants must offer five-day notice before vacating, but Hungate says that's not typically an issue.

"We have someone who stayed for three years," he boasts, "and is still going."

A third short-term option in town is Residence Inn by Marriott, which offers housing for singles, couples, even families. But a few nights at the Inn could tank some budgets.

For the cheapest stays– 30 days or more– a studio apartment runs $84 per night (a whopping $2,550 per month). For the family-sized three-bedroom suite, rent is higher than a downtown-penthouse at $3,300 per month. The average stay, says manager Debbie Rushing, is 45 nights.

To soften the blow, Rushing points out that the rate includes a buffet breakfast for all occupants seven days a week, as well as a "light" dinner Monday through Thursday. The Inn also offers a grocery shopping service and dry cleaning valet service at no additional cost.

Though Null and Wicker won't offer such luxuries at Carlton House, they believe the relatively low cost of their boarding house will tap into a strong– and as yet unmet– demand. If they're right, they say, they plan to open more.

"Conrad Hilton," laughs Wicker, "started out running a boarding house."

Carlton House will soon offer 10 units of affordable housing

Barbara Null and Carolyn Wicker believe in their boarding house.