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Mini-Dorm Ordinance in Stall Mode

At its second meeting on Aug. 18, the Santa Clara’s Neighborhood Protection Ordinance Committee (NPOC) reviewed a second version of a proposed city ordinance concerning boarding houses – mini-dorms – but made little progress toward bringing anything forward for City Council action. The meeting did, however, highlight ongoing frustration being felt by city officials about relations between the city and Santa Clara University.

The ordinance currently on the books, which most people agree isn’t being enforced, was written in 1969 and contains no provisions for boarding houses; so, technically, any boarding house is an illegal use. But with housing increasingly expensive, the problem the NPOC is trying to fix doesn’t have a simple solution. Beyond the difficulties of defining a “boarding house” without violating civil rights laws, there’s also the question of existing mini-dorms.

The current proposal grandfathers them in, while prohibiting the creation of new ones. And that, said Planning Commission Vice Chair Keith Stattenfield, has the potential to create new problems. “We’re creating two classes of houses,” he said. “Once you have a permit, you’ll never rent it to a single family again since after one year [of not renting it], the permit goes away.”

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Something was better than nothing, countered Planning Commissioner Deborah Costa. “If we don’t do this, and we work with everyone involved, we could still solve this problem,” she said. “The ordinance doesn’t solve the problem with parties, it doesn’t solve problems with parking. This is [only] limiting things we’re allowing people to do with properties.”

Because the core issue was Santa Clara University student housing, several said that no resolution was possible without the college’s active participation. “The NURC (Neighborhood – University Relations Committee) has to step up its game,” said City Council Member Teresa O’Neill. “It has to do more than count how many red cups are in the gutters. We have to step it up to do more than just having pie charts on the walls showing how many arrests or non-arrests.”

“What’s most disappointing to me is the biggest player [Santa Clara University] in all this isn’t making any comments and that’s really unfortunate,” said Vice Mayor Jerry Marsalli. “There are unique plans in their future growth that will impact things.

“I’m leaning more towards a graduated approach,” he continued. “Maybe it would be wise to hold back on an ordinance for the next year for a good study period to make sure we have stepped up our code enforcement. Then we can come back with stats, if necessary, to help us make a decision if we do indeed need to have an ordinance, or if we can just rely on better code enforcement and stepped up law enforcement when necessary.”

“Staff will tweak issues of what Planning will do vs. the Police Department,” said O’Neill, adding that the two council members needed to meet with “some of the parties that have not been at the table” before the ordinance committee could continue its work.

In the end, the Committee agreed to meet again on Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. in the City Council Chambers. The working text of the proposed ordinance can be found at santaclaraca.gov/index.aspx?page=43&recordid=13285.

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