For many months, City of Santa Clara staff have been working on a comprehensive update to the City’s zoning code, which hasn’t been updated since it was originally adopted in 1969. The societal change that’s taken place over the many decades has resulted in a municipal code that doesn’t address current challenges.
On Oct. 8, City Council Members and Planning Commissioners met with staff for a joint study session on proposals to zoning code changes that would address issues concerning residential districts and short-term rentals.
The heart of the session was to determine the maximum number of occupants allowable in a residence in order to address growing concern about the rise of “boarding homes” or “mini-dorms” especially in the Old Quad neighborhood where neighbors have complained about noise, trash and increased transience. The other goal was to work toward regulations on short-term rentals, a trend popularized by Airbnb and VRBO. Tangled within these topics are the issues of parking availability and affordable housing, which were broached at the meeting.
The City doesn’t have unlimited leeway in setting new regulations. For instance, California law states that numerical limits on groups of unrelated people living as a single household can’t be different from limits on households with related individuals. Furthermore, federal Fair Housing laws ban housing discrimination and states that governments can’t define what constitutes a family.
Working within these parameters, City staff presented a proposal for single-family districts, in which the term “boarding house” would be abandoned and replaced with an established maximum number of individuals who can occupy a residence beyond those who are part of a single housekeeping unit.
They’ve defined a single housekeeping unit to mean a group of people who have a common living arrangement and share the responsibilities of housing costs, daily living and chores. So instead of regulating the number of individuals who can live as part of a single housekeeping unit, the City is aiming at limiting the number of additional individuals in the home, based on housing type.
The proposal is that for single-family homes, three additional individuals can live at the residence beyond those part of the housekeeping unit. For duplexes and multiple unit buildings, two additional people per unit would be allowed. Also, for newly constructed single-family homes and duplexes, staff proposed that a minimum of 25 percent of the total habitable floor area be devoted to common areas such as living rooms, dining room and kitchens.
If adopted, enforcement of these regulations would be conducted only if complaints are made. Residents would be given time for their leases to expire before moving out in instances where the number of occupants exceed the limits.
Multiple Council Members pointed out that the “single housekeeping unit” definition is vague and thus would make enforcement difficult. City Attorney Brian Doyle emphasized that the regulations aren’t aimed at putting people on the street because individuals are sleeping in living rooms due to the housing affordability crisis, but rather aimed at stemming the practice of residences being physically modified, such as living rooms being partitioned into bedrooms.
“There are a lot of people in living situations with four people in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara,” Doyle remarked.
Discussion then ensued about the difficulty of crafting regulations specifically to address the issues of off-campus student housing. Council Member Teresa O’Neill said the solution is to continue pushing Santa Clara University to build more student housing.
Commissioner Suds Jain advocated for dealing with the issue by controlling the illicit behaviors of individual renters, such as college students who violate the noise ordinance, litter or set fire to furniture. He added that, as an Old Quad resident, he finds that the presence of students can make the neighborhood feel safer because there’s more activity at night.
“I’ve gone into a lot of homes as a realtor and I’ve seen tool sheds being used for housing, I’ve seen condominiums partitioned up, I’ve seen people living in garages,” said Commissioner Steve Kelly. “It’s difficult because people who are living this way really can’t afford market rates that we’re seeing today.”
Kelly said that he’d like to see more major residential projects be put near the City’s burgeoning job centers. “As we bring in more business, we’re squeezing the people who least can afford escalating rents,” he said.
Currently, Santa Clara’s zoning code has nothing to address short-term rentals, a temporary living arrangement that has become common in recent years due to Airbnb and similar companies. As with boarding houses, neighbors have voiced complaints that some property owners are not effectively managing the rentals or are creating a “revolving door” of temporary renters in the neighborhood. Some neighbors claim that such properties have spurred drug dealing, people sleeping in cars and a decline in sanitation.
City staff proposed that short-term rental stays be limited to 90 days per calendar year if no host is present at the residence, with no limit if a host is there. The maximum allowed number of short-term rental occupants would be two people for a studio, three people for a one-bedroom and two people per bedroom for each additional bedroom for a maximum of eight occupants. Property owners would also be required to secure an annual administrative permit for an annual fee.
Several members of the public spoke at the meeting expressing concern that the proposed limits are not stringent enough. One resident said that 90 days is too lengthy a period and another said that short-term rentals without hosts present should be prohibited.
Commissioner Yuki Ikezi raised the emergence of co-housing arrangements in places like San Francisco as something that could become a reality in Santa Clara. Co-housing generally refers to intentionally shared living situations with low square footage devoted to personal use and larger amounts of shared areas. Planning Manager Reena Brilliot said that staff will look into coming up with regulations for these types of arrangements as well.
A draft on the zoning code update is expected to be released for public review in December. Public hearings at both the Planning Commission and City Council are tentatively planned for spring 2020.