Retired Marine's Multi-Use Garage Sparks Controversy in Dearborn


A retired Marine who served during the war in Iraq finds himself fighting City Hall at home, after turning his garage in Dearborn, Mich., into an informal space for family and friends to gather.

Muheeb Nabulsy, who was a cultural adviser during his time in the Marines, said that at times in his "very tough life" he has had to live between garbage and sewage, and eat meat covered in sand. But although conditions in the military can be rough, Nabulsy (pictured at left) said that he didn't expect a battle at home -- just to be able to sit in his garage with his wife and neighbors, smoking a hookah, drinking coffee, or sharing a meal in the way that many families do in the Middle East. But Nabulsy has received a citation from the city for improper use of a garage.

Dearborn officials have a pending ordinance that would ban using a garage as living space, as Nabulsy and many of his neighbors do -- even if it's still used as a place to park the car and store lawn tools. Many of those who would be affected by this law are part of Dearborn's Arab-American community, one of the largest outside of the Middle East and a third of the city's population of about 100,000.

Nabulsy, 49, has been in talks with the city for more than a year, ever since he laid down ceramic tile on his garage floor and installed sliding glass doors in front of the still-existing standard retractable garage door (as pictured below). His goal was when the electric overhead door is open, the sliding doors will make the space feel more like an enclosed patio, where he can sit in fresh air and shoot the breeze with neighbors without worrying about swatting away flies and mosquitoes.

"There is nothing that says you can't put tile in your garage. Show me how this is committing a problem or hazard for anyone," says Nabulsy, who still parks his Mercedes there overnight (a small ramp lets the car roll over the screen door frame with ease.)

According to AOL Real Estate's review of current Dearborn building permit regulations, one does not even need a permit to install flooring such as hardwood or tile, nor is one needed to replace an existing door -- garage or otherwise.

Dearborn officials say that garages aren't meant to be living spaces, so building permits can't be issued to convert them. That conversion, city spokeswoman Mary Laundroche told The Associated Press, is not only illegal, but also isn't inspected for safety. "We're trying to find a solution that is safe and acknowledges the way garages are being used," she said.

Nabulsy says that he wouldn't categorize his use of his garage as a living space. "I have my tools in the garage. I repair old computers there and change the bag in the vacuum cleaner. I use it as storage and park my car there. Calling this a living space is the wrong word. If I had a kitchen, oven or gas line, then I'd 100 percent agree. We don't have all that. I have 100 percent storage."

At a Dearborn City Planning Commission meeting, Commissioner Nancy Siwik sided with the residents who modified their spaces. "I fully understand what the city is trying to do in terms of not making it a livable space, but I think we are really restricting the freedom that people should have to decorate, or to have their home look the way they want it to. We still have to allow people to have some form of individuality about their house."

"This is not about the floor," Nabulsy tells us "or the screen, or the sliding doors. It is about discrimination. They don't understand our culture." He says that his home was not even an issue until his neighbor saw how well done it was and then added a sliding door to his garage as well. Of course, it's not just those of Middle Eastern heritage who might have a garage double as a space to hang out -- the garage-as-man-cave is almost a cliche. (Think of how "garage bands" got their name.)

In the TV series "King of Queens," it was where the title character parked his 70-inch-screen television, and in the 2009 movie, "I Love You Man," the characters portrayed by Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, bonded over music and guitar-playing in Segal's man-cave garage -- complete with armchairs and TV.

But it's not just men. In Iowa, one mom blogger wrote about it as a party venue -- specifically for her daughter's graduation. ("The garage?! Ick! That thought had not occurred to me, but she explained that her daughter preferred garage parties because they are 'open' and 'easy to approach' and nice and casual.")

And it's not just parties. In Minnesota, Rabbi Berel Simpser and his family built a Sukkah at the entrance to their garage and not only ate meals in this temporary hut with friends during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, but even laid mattresses on top of tables and slept there, off and on, over the course of the eight-day holiday.

"In the past we built the sukkah in our backyard. When we decided to build it in the front yard we figured it would be easier to go in and out from the kitchen to garage," he told AOL Real Estate. "We were able to double the size of the sukkah and seat 50 to 60 people."

Other examples of garages that do double-duty: A recreation space complete with arcade and a dog shower and a retreat in Maine with a brick flooring, wicker furniture and large flat-screen TV behind a mega-armoire.

Share with us the creative way that you use your garage as living space -- or your objections to using it that way.

More on garage makeovers and other home conversions:
Garages Go Glam
Home Makeovers That Add Value

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