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Mini-Dorms: Growing Student Population, Stratospheric Rents Continue Collision With Historic Houses, Single-Family Zoning

Santa Clara is a nice place to live.

According to areavibes.com, a website devoted to ranking living standards, Santa Clara scores an 83 out of 100 on its livability index, making it “exceptionally livable.” The site gives its amenities and housing a grade of A+, its education and employment get As, its weather is a B+ and its crime rate a B. Its cost of living gets an F – it’s more than 25 percent higher than the California average and nearly 70 percent higher than the national average.

High cost of living is driven, at least in part, by high wages, which Santa Clara also has in spades. However, if you are one of the people on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, say a student trying to make ends meet, Santa Clara housing prices – more than 200 percent higher than the national average – can make living on your own nearly impossible.

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With more than 9,000 students at Santa Clara University, and the university unable to provide housing for even half of them, many students have taken to living off campus, and many landlords have seen the demand for an increase in student housing; converting their rental properties into mini- dorms, or what the City calls boarding houses. But where there is change there is conflict.

Typically, a mini-dorm or boarding house functions much like a hotel where renters pay a fixed sum for their rooms in a high-density home, signing individual contracts with their landlord. Many residents living in neighborhoods surrounding the university are unhappy that mini-dorms have become more prevalent as the need for student housing has increased.

Bob O’Keefe lives on the corner of Alviso and Hilmar. For him, the problem came into crisp focus last year when one of his neighbors discovered an online listing for the newly renovated 2325 Park Ave. listed as a six-bedroom home. All the homes in his neighborhood, just as all the homes zoned R-1, are zoned for single-family use.

“If I wanted to live in an apartment, I would be living in an apartment. If I wanted to live in a condo, I would move into a condo. We bought our property because we wanted to live in a single-family [neighborhood].”

The problem, he said, stems from who owns the properties. Many people in neighborhoods like his are homeowners, but a few are landlords. Those landlords are concerned with making money, so they convert the homes they own into mini- dorms to maximize their profit.

Having a higher concentration of tenants in an area that was never zoned to accommodate them creates problems, O’Keefe said. Mini-dorms cause problems with parking, overburden the sewers with trash, and give rise to more noise. They also affect property values.

“If I have a mini-dorm next to me, no single family is going to want to come in there and buy it,” he said. “Someone who owns their home will, typically, maintain it better than someone who rents.”

O’Keefe isn’t alone. Hudson Washburm lives on Park Avenue and shares some of O’Keefe’s sentiments. Washburn said he likes students, so when mini-dorms began cropping up in his neighborhood, he was intrigued as to what it would do to the neighborhood dynamic. He quickly learned it wasn’t at all like what he expected.

When a house’s occupants change every year or two, as typically happens in a mini-dorm, he said, there is no sense of community because those renters are only in the neighborhood for a short time. This leads to some less-than-considerate attitudes, he said.

“You don’t get the average behavior; you get the whole range,” he said. ” The psychology changes completely. When you have 12 people living in there, the responsibility is dissipated … It has changed the whole nature of the street.”

Still, not everybody sees high-occupancy housing as the problem.

Chuck Hattemer was a student at Santa Clara University, and he said much of the behavior mini-dorm neighbors complain about is a result of poor management. Nothing about having several renters in a home is inherently detrimental to the neighborhood, he said. He hopes to be part of the solution; his experience with poor property management led him and some friends to start OneRent, a digital leasing platform that manages properties.

The tide swell of public opinion tipped the issue to its boiling point last year. The Santa Clara City Council saw the issue fall into its lap. Its members proposed drafting an ordinance that addressed the problem of boarding houses. Many students were outraged at what they saw as a governmental attempt to legislate them out of a home.

Hattemer acknowledged the problems that arise with boarding houses, but he pointed to a lack of enforcement of already established regulations as the culprit. The solution, he said, is not to limit how many people can live in a house.

“If you limit how many people can live in one house, that doesn’t mean we no longer invite all of our friends over one night and still have that wild party,” he said.

The point of code enforcement would prove a unifying thread between homeowners like O’Keefe and Washburn, students like Hattemer and rental owners, all of whom largely opposed the creation of a new ordinance prohibiting mini-dorms.

Something had to be done. To be continued.

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