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Mini-Dorms: University Increasing Supervision, But Long-Standing Problems Evade Easy Solutions – PART TWO

Santa Clara Councilmember Teresa O’Neill has been struggling with the issue of mini-dorms since she was on the planning commission. It has been a problem in some way or another for roughly 20 years, she said. O’Neill agreed that the rise of mini-dorms owes a lot to a lack of scrutiny. Often, when a property owner wanted to renovate a home, to say, convert it to a mini-dorm, the approval process was tantamount to a rubber stamp policy.

With so few code enforcement officers, she said the problem often floated below the city’s radar. Neighbors complaining about the conversions forced the city to sit up and take notice of the problem. But by then, it had already painted itself into a corner, she said.

“It is like you opened a barn door and let a bunch of horses out, and now you want to close the barn door,” she said.

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Doing nothing meant angering the neighbors, who now had to deal with living next to boarding houses that are increasingly changing the character of their neighborhoods. Passing an ordinance that precluded mini-dorms meant angering students, who saw it as a measure to eliminate one of their only housing options in a housing market where prices continue soaring, and property owners had already renovated their properties – with city approval.

Ren Nosky, Santa Clara city attorney, said he drafted the initial ordinance, called the “Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance,” for the City Council.

The zoning code lists R-1, or low-density residential, uses. A problem arises because the code does not list boarding houses as an allowed use, nor does it prohibit them, Nosky said. Many California cities have had regulations on boarding houses withstand legal challenge, he added, so it is far from an insurmountable problem.

A 2003 opinion given by then California Attorney General Bill Lockyer lends credence to the idea that boarding houses are a commercial endeavor, and regulating them as such is in line with government and community interests.

According to Lockyer’s opinion, an ordinance prohibiting boarding houses in R-1 zones wouldn’t “raise constitutional issues of the right of privacy or right of association since it would allow any owner of property to rent to any member of the public and any member of the public to apply for lodging. The proposed ordinance would be directed at a commercial use of property that is inconsistent with the residential character of the neighborhood and which is unrelated to the identity of the users.”

But Nosky acknowledged that defining the term “boarding house” does not solve the issues already at hand with those in existence.

Increasing enrollment, and Santa Clara University’s inability to house all its students, leads many to place the responsibility on the university.

“It is not the neighborhoods’ problem to house university students,” said Bob O’Keefe, a resident of a university-adjacent neighborhood. “The onus is on the university to house its students … If there was more university property available, it would drive down the prices on the outside, in residential neighborhoods.”

Santa Clara University anticipates that enrollment will grow over the next five to 10 years, and is making strides to ensure it can house those additional students, said Kimberly Gilke-Wall, assistant dean for off-campus student life.

However, adding more residence halls does nothing to address the issue of a high concentration of students spilling over into campus-adjacent neighborhoods. Even if SCU could house all its students, Gilke-Wall said it is unlikely all the students would choose to live in the residence halls.

But SCU officials are not simply shrugging off concerns about student housing and some of the problems it creates. It does, after all, own 20 off-campus properties that house students.

Efforts are already underway to increase university presence in those, and all, student, neighborhoods, Gilke-Wall said. The goal, she said, is to be able to provide the same benefits students get in the residence halls while living off-campus. One component of that is a neighborhood ambassador team with an off-campus area coordinator and three student ambassadors.

This small team reaches out to students living off campus – all students, not just those living in university-owned houses. They hold social events like ice cream socials and workshops to teach college students, many of whom are living on their own for the first time, basic life skills like cooking and managing money. Knowing their rights as tenants is a big part of that, Gilke-Wall said.

“Their overarching goal is to build community with the students,” she said.

Further, those students living in university-owned properties will see that process streamlined with individual contracts – just like in the residence halls – and pay the rent with their bursar cards. SCU eliminated its property manager, instead giving that responsibility to its housing office. This outreach, Gilke-Wall said, aims to provide a consistent experience for students whether or not they are in the dorms.

Still, even if the university could reach every student in an attempt to curb the behavior many neighbors complain about, not every student wants off-campus neighborhoods to be more like campus life. Many students choose to live off campus to escape the campus atmosphere and forge their own identities; as adults they resent attempts to homogenize their college experience.

Chuck Hattemer, a former SCU students whose experiences renting houses off campus led him to co-found an online property management company, said his experience living off campus taught him valuable problem solving skills.

“People don’t want to be directed on how to live,” he said. “It is tough to see the hands of higher education guarding people from breaking out of their shell and becoming truly independent.”

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