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Mini-Dorms Part of Zoning Code Overhaul, But No Changes in Near Term

Last month an overflow crowd turned out for an Old Quad Neighborhood Zoning Ordinance Update, discussing future zoning requirements for mini-dorms currently under consideration at City Hall. Notice of the meeting went out to Old Quad residents and was published on the City website.

This notice led to something of a panic: on the part of landlords alarmed that their rights would be abridged; renters anxious that they were about to be turned out of their homes; and Old Quad residents fretful that mini-dorms — single family houses rented to groups of students — would be codified into law.

As it turns out, panic is premature. Those happy with the present situation — mini-dorms are technically illegal because there is no zoning for them, but the City does no enforcement — will continue to be happy for a while yet. Those unhappy with mini-dorms for whatever reason, will likewise continue to be unhappy.


The meeting was part of the City’s overhaul of Santa Clara’s 1969 zoning code, a project to revise the 50-year-old code to line up with 2019 land uses. This has been in progress since 2017 and the City is some distance from making any changes, according to Santa Clara Planning Manager Reena Brilliot.

“We have had a lot of engagement around this topic for a while,” said Brilliot. “Because the City is doing a zoning code update there’s an opportunity to make some changes, address some problems. This is just one aspect.”

For limiting mini-dorms; approaches, the City is considering two approaches designed to stay clear of exclusionary zoning — courts have found such laws in violation of civil rights and fair housing laws.

The first would require a minimum percentage of shared open space in all single-family houses and duplexes. The second would limit the number of people in addition to the main household that can occupy a residence.

Occupancy limits would restrict boarders to three, in addition to the household, in a single-family house, and two in duplexes and apartments.

The City is defining “household” as “an individual or group of persons occupying a dwelling unit used as a common living arrangement.” What makes a “household” includes things like sharing living expenses, having a single lease or sharing chores.

These requirements wouldn’t apply to group homes, or board and care homes as these are, by law, protected uses and covered by other laws.

Two additional meetings covering the same information are scheduled on May 16 and May 29, both at City Council Chambers from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Both meetings will be broadcast on the City’s website, social media pages and Comcast cable channel 15.

Past meetings about zoning code changes in the Old Quad were organized by the Old Quad Residents Association, and thus limited to their mailing list.

However, the City recognized that the meetings needed to be formally noticed by the City, with mailings to all residents of the neighborhood, said Brilliot — leading to the unprecedented turnout.


An Un-Meeting in the Hall

Because of the overflow crowd, virtually another meeting was going on in the hall outside the meeting room, voicing the same views that were being aired inside. Reportedly, about 50 Santa Clara University (SCU) students were turned away because the meeting was full.

“How can the City be deciding about the zoning when the City owns rental property that’s operating as student housing,” said Carol Atwell, an owner of Old Quad rental property. “I fail to understand how the City can be without a conflict of interest.”

The City owns the Morse Mansion, which it bought in October 2016, and the sorority that rented it prior to the City’s purchase has a lease through June 2024.

“There’s nothing wrong with a boarding house,” said Old Quad resident Shelly Woodworth, “if they [owners] have a use permit.”

“If they want to run a business, they should pay [business] taxes,” said John Bridges, another Old Quad resident. The real problem, he said, was that the City “doesn’t enforce the code.”

“We need more housing,” said SCU student Chris Halter who shares a house with four other students. “But there are people who have a vested interest in [not building housing].”

“I don’t want to be a position of losing my housing next year,” said SCU student James Kerrigan, who will share a house with nine other students. “I think the City listens to me, but they listen more to people who have lived here a long time.”

Some were critical about the scheduling of the meeting. “If you want to get people out, why would you start a meeting at 5 p.m., a meeting of this importance,” said Old Quad resident Kate Grant.

“This meeting, where they turned so many away, shows the strong concerns of our residents,” said Joanne Bruna, who has lived in the same Old Quad house her entire life. “My message to the City: Please send notices of meetings.”


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