Monday Morning Thoughts II: Can Council Take on Mini-Dorms without Dealing with Root Cause?

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Affordable Apartments, Davis CA Davis Vanguard

A 2014 Boston Globe article chronicled the sale of a two-family home for more than $1 million, nearly 60 percent above median sales prices for two-family homes in the area.  The buyer, the newspaper reported, “wasn’t simply after the house, but a far more lucrative opportunity: renting it to college students.”

A year later, that home was filled with at least a dozen Boston College undergraduates, “a violation of city zoning which limits occupancy to four full-time undergraduates” but it allowed the owner “to collect thousands of dollars in additional rent.”

The Globe reported, “Overcrowding student rentals to maximize profits is hardly unusual in this corner of Brighton, or on many other streets near the city’s college neighborhoods. An investigation by the Globe’s Spotlight Team found that these widespread violations are wreaking havoc in once cohesive neighborhoods that are being emptied of the families that had sustained them.”

They continue, “Home prices have skyrocketed in recent years, as ever-rising rents paid by students attract investors who can easily outbid any family or young couple in the market for a home.”

On September 23, 2014, the Davis City Staff presented the Davis City Council with an update on “mini dorm” ordinance provisions in the zoning.

Staff explains, “The timing of the September 2014 update was largely in response to zoning and building code violations that took place at a rental property on Sunset Court. Staff believes that the code enforcement actions undertaken on the Sunset Court property worked precisely as envisioned in the nuisance ordinance.”

According to staff, current laws are “designed to seek remedy of the violation” rather than “seek punitive remedies by way of fines.”  As they explain, “Under the current nuisance code structure, fines are only imposed in the event that a property owner does NOT comply with a nuisance abatement order. In a situation like that of Sunset Court, the primary ‘penalty’ paid by the property owner is the expenditure of installing and then removing the illegal construction.”

In September 2014, options were outlined to possibly impose greater zoning restrictions for single family homes.  The city, for example, currently requires homes or remodels with greater than five bedrooms to obtain a Conditional Use Permit.

Staff notes, “Where there is currently no maximum number of bathrooms that can be in a house, the zoning could be amended to require a CUP for new homes or remodels exceeding a certain number of bathrooms.”

They continue, “Since the September 2014 report, there have been two code enforcement cases involving concerns about illegal conversion of garage or non-habitable space or integration of illegal bedrooms. One property is a rental, one is owner-occupied. Both are in the process of being remedied though the code enforcement process. Staff is not observing an influx of illegal conversions or a proliferation of illegal ‘mini dorms’ being reported.”

Staff has reached the conclusion that further curtailing mini-dorms may not be achieved in the most effective manner by reducing thresholds to trigger the need for a CUP.  They argue, “Amending the zoning to lower the thresholds for review will likely tend to burden ‘legitimate’ remodels with additional review time, costs, and process uncertainty.”

Instead, they believe they should discourage illegal conversions for remodels.  These include a potential rental inspection program and the incorporation of “more stringent penalties and fines into the nuisance ordinance for property owners and contractors with egregious violations of the building and zoning codes resulting in illegal conversion of homes to multiple bedrooms and/or conversion of non-habitable space.”

The question is whether attacking remodels is the most effective way to deal with the issue of mini-dorms.

The real problem is the scarcity of rental housing. Davis is operating with a 0.2 percent vacancy rate.  UC Davis is planning to add another 9000 students, faculty and staff in the next decade.  The university is well below their agreed upon on-campus housing provision, has acknowledged in the LRDP (long Range Development Plan) efforts that they will not build enough housing to incorporate new student growth.

Finally, the city has limited ability to add housing, with limited infill spots such as Lincoln40 and Sterling in the pipeline but with considerable pushback by neighbors, at least in the case of Sterling.  The city’s peripheral land is limited by Measure R’s voter requirements.  The voters have a chance to approve 1500 beds at Nishi, but that race remains too close to call.

Absent dealing with the core problem of growth and housing supply, can the city use nuisance and other ordinances to limit mini-dorms?

Boston has found itself struggling with this issue, the Globe writes. “The side effects of overcrowding, the noise and disruption that afflict the surrounding neighborhoods, are not factored into the financial calculus; there is simply too much money in Animal House. And so Boston finds itself in something of a Prohibition Era in rental real estate, with violators operating in plain view of regulators who say they are powerless to stop the law-breaking and, in fact, rarely try.”

They note, “Boston Inspectional Services Commissioner Bryan Glascock concedes his department almost never issues citations for overcrowding, as his staff is stretched too thin to chase students and property owners who both have an interest in concealing such violations.”

Davis, of course, may not suffer from these same problems.  But simply limiting the number of rooms is not going to necessarily prevent landlords from packing students in, two to a room, potentially more.

Other cities have struggled with this issue as well.  In 2013, the Berkeley city council attempted to crack down on mini-dorms, by enacting an ordinance that limits bedroom additions to homes.  The Daily Cal reported, “Mini-dorms often aim to maximize bedroom space in private homes by converting shared living areas like living rooms, attics, basements and backyards into bedrooms. These bedrooms are rented out to individuals, reducing the cost of what would otherwise be a group lease.”

However, “often, these additions don’t include new bathrooms, kitchens and plumbing — amenities needed to provide adequate living standards for an increase in residents.”

The question is whether such regulations are enough, absent a plan to provide students and renters with sufficient housing.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts II: Can Council Take on Mini-Dorms without Dealing with Root Cause?”

  1. Biddlin

    “absent a plan to provide students and renters with sufficient housing.”

    The regulations are useless. Landlords will continue to pack as many students as they can into rooms and the kids will have lousy, overpriced living conditions. I know a young woman who was living out of her car the last two years while finishing her undergrad work at UCD, parking at different spots each night, usually going unnoticed by Davis and campus police. Recently finding a nice apartment in West Sacramento, she is thrilled by such amenities as a shower and kitchen.

  2. Alan Miller

    Often, the landlords don’t even know, if is not specifically built that way.

    I know a guy who made his living room into three “mini-rooms” with walls attached with set-screws top and bottom in his rented house.  He also had a person in his garage loft.  I know a few people who live or have lived in campers around town, and use a friend’s shower.  I have and know many students who live in living rooms behind sheets hung from the ceiling, or in “dens” that aren’t legally bedrooms.  I knew a guy in Santa Cruz who had a bed that just fit in a small closet off the living room — now his bedroom.  This is nothing new, and economic pressures will increase its occurrence.

  3. tj

    Insurance:  I’m told by a friend who rents out bedrooms to students, that insurance will not cover this type of rental.  Perhaps there is potential liability that most owners are not aware of.

    Sterling is not infill, it would tear down beautiful modern buildings which are worth many millions of dollars.

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