Santa Clara is not the only college town in California that has mini-dorms. And like Santa Clara, other cities have attempted to block them with the zoning code. But courts have repeatedly struck down such exclusionary zoning laws as discriminatory.
The current effort to craft a zoning ordinance limiting mini-dorms is the City’s second in five years.
In 2014 the Santa Clara City Council considered an ordinance banning “boarding houses” in single family-zoned neighborhoods; defining boarding house as “any residence where three or more rooms are rented out to separate individuals who are not members of the same family.” The proposal grandfathered in existing mini-dorms.
Faced with a wall of opposition from landlords, student renters and Old Quad residents — who want the mini-dorms to go away — the Council quietly dropped the proposed ordinance.
If enacted, the proposed ordinance would almost certainly have faced a legal challenge and very likely found to be in violation of fair housing laws, as have other such exclusionary zoning ordinances in California.
In the landmark 1978 case Santa Barbara v. Adamson, the California Supreme Court struck down Santa Barbara’s ban on unrelated individuals living together in a single-family neighborhood as discriminatory.
Most recently, an appeals court struck down San Diego’s mini-dorm ordinance, that city’s third attempt to limit mini-dorms. One key reason that the judge struck it down was that it imposed requirements on renters — parking, inspections, number of occupants — that weren’t imposed on owners.
In both cases the courts found that the alleged nuisances created by a group of unrelated people living in a rented single family house could be equally created by a group of related people living in a house they own.
There is another approach, one that has been taken by the City of Berkeley. Instead of attempting to block mini-dorms, Berkeley created a separate zoning for them, and requires annual permits and compliance with a set of operating standards.