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City Desk: Feb. 18, 2015

Mini-Dorms: New Law or Better Enforcement Needed?

At its Feb. 3 study session, the City Council sent back the third draft of the “Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance,” designed to ban “boarding houses” – aka mini-dorms – for further revision and review. As was the case in previous discussions, there was a full house and lengthy public commentary.

Mini-dorms are houses in single-family neighborhoods (R-1) rented by the room to Santa Clara University students. The City has no “boarding house” zoning category, so technically they're not permitted, but City has handled construction permits and waiver requests just as for any as R-1 zoned property.

The latest iteration prohibits establishment of new mini-dorms; adds a grandfather clause for existing mini-dorms provided they register and get a Zoning Administrator permit (which is at the Planning Director's discretion and revocable). It also creates categories of public nuisance and disorderly conduct infractions specific to 'boarding house” residents.

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Proponents complain about parking and traffic problems, littering, poorly maintained property, noise and the “Animal House” atmosphere at some houses. Student rentals undermine the character of older residential neighborhoods, they say, and multi-tenant rentals are inconsistent with neighborhood design – e.g. limited parking.

Opponents say the ordinance reflects prejudice against students, undermines property rights, and that enforcing laws already on the books is the proper way to address complaints about trash, deteriorating properties, wild parties and illegal parking.

It's hard to put a number on mini-dorms in Santa Clara, but a search for rooms in houses (excluding apartments) at student rental marketplace OneRent.co, showed 46 addresses with rentals within five miles of SCU.

As rents escalate, single-family houses near the university grow increasingly attractive as investments – many owners don't live in Santa Clara. “Before you know it, the neighborhood is gone,” said one speaker.

“This ordinance protects the neighborhoods from proliferation [of mini-dorms] and the landlords who are trying to make money,” said another resident. “I don't think it's in any way discriminatory against students. If anything it's discriminatory against families… the high rents they're charging are preventing families from moving in.”

The issue became prominent last year after neighbors on Park Ave. discovered that a new owner was adding four bedrooms and two bathrooms to a two-bedroom house, advertising it as an $8,000/month rental.

The permits couldn't be legally rescinded, but the Council passed a resolution requiring Council approval for renovations totaling more than four bedrooms in a single-family house. They also authorized new Code Enforcement staff, and appointed a committee to draft an ordinance banning mini-dorms.

This isn't the first time the subject has been discussed. At a 2010 Neighborhood-University Relations Committee (NURC) meeting the City stated that it didn't distinguish between unrelated students and families living in single family homes. An overlay zone with a special use permit was discussed by the NURC in 2009. In 2013, an ordinance banning boarding houses was drafted, but apparently died in revision.

Tiptoeing Around the “D” Word

A “boarding house” is defined in the proposed law as a “residence or dwelling structure, or part thereof … occupied by five more unrelated adults who are not living as a common household, under separate rental agreements or leases … whether or not an owner, agent, or rental manager is in residence. It shall not include the rental of a single-family dwelling to a common household.”

“I find it interesting,” said one speaker, “that I can't rent to five [unrelated] engineers with five cars, but I can rent to my sister with five kids and seven cars.”

“This does violate the California Employment and Housing law by asking about 'family, status' and requiring property owners to inquire about familial status. It also violates the Constitutional right to privacy,” said Sean Cobble of Fair Housing Santa Clara County. California law prohibits discriminating against and even questioning prospective tenants or buyers about marital or familial status.

“We have no right to go into people's houses and ask, Who lives here,” said resident Robert Fitch.

Mayor Jamie Matthews observed that the ordinance made it look as if the City was carving out a special class of people, between 18 and 55, against whom it's permissible to discriminate. “Are you trying to address behavior or discriminate against a group of people?”

For example, fraternity and sorority houses and dormitories are specifically banned, as is any “residential structure intended for limited term residency with four or more sleeping rooms and commonly shared or assigned bathroom, gathering and dining facilities, generally associated with or serving educational facilities,” which describes the Jesuit residence on Franklin Street.

Many weren't convinced the city needs restatements of existing disorderly conduct and public nuisance law. “I was pressed to find any new behavior that's not already prohibited in our [existing] code,” said Council Member Pat Kolstad. “It's redundant.”

The justification offered for writing new laws is that it offers “clarity,” said City Manager Julio Fuentes, and puts more “teeth” in existing laws about property neglect and unruly behavior.

“This doesn't address any issues of our residents,” said resident Debra Costa. “The problems [of renovations not] going before the architecture committee have already been addressed. We already have ordinances about parking and noise. We need police presence.”

SCU Mum on Mini-Dorms

By its own admission, SCU only has dormitory space for slightly more than half of its 5,400 undergraduates – despite tuition that tops $42,000 a year, room and board fees that add another $12,000 and a three-quarter billion dollar endowment fund. Yet it's been quiet throughout these discussions, and that rankled some Council Members.

“The University didn't come here at all tonight,” said Council Member Dominic Caserta. (There was a university representative present, who didn't, however, speak.) “If this comes back to the dais … I want to see from you [SCU] concrete examples of how you're going to help ameliorate the situation. You're getting an 'F' on this, quite frankly.”

“This is going to be completely impossible to enforce,” said Council Member Lisa Gillmor. “The University must take responsibility for its students. They have a lot more leverage over students than the City does. I'd like this to come back to our committee [NURC]. That's the only way we're going to deal with this in a fair and cooperative matter.”

Council Member Teresa O'Neill also noted SCU's responsibility. “Part of the problem, as the university has grown, we haven't been proactive in enforcing our zoning. And the university has participated by buying single-family homes in the neighborhood and not adequately housing their students [on campus].”

Ultimately, O'Neill said, the issue was zoning policy. “In another situation, the property owners in this room [arguing against the ordinance] would want to have R-1 zoning enforced. Do we want to have true R-1 zoning or not? Is it only for the most affluent cities?”

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