Berkeley officials crack down on ‘mini-dorms’

The city has, in the past, identified 2133 Parker street as a mini-dorm property south of the Cal campus. Image: Google Maps

The city has, in the past, identified 2133 Parker St. as a mini-dorm property south of the Cal campus. Image: Google Maps

After at least eight meetings dating back to late 2011, the Berkeley City Council voted last week to begin to try to curb the proliferation of “mini-dorms” in residential areas around town.

Residents, particularly in the campus area, have been speaking out to the city about the problems that can be posed by these set-ups, which the city defines as group living households where renters have individual leases with landlords. Residents have said certain landlords pack as many people into these properties as possible, which leads to problems with noise, parking and traffic. 

Currently, landlords can divide their properties into any number of bedrooms allowed by the building code, and the city has no authority to review or deny the plans. This has led to “numerous bad examples of excessive bedrooms in structures,” Eric Angstadt, city planning director, told the council last week. “We all agree that some degree of discretionary review is needed in order to allow us to begin to curb the construction of these types of situations.”

Most mini-dorms have at least six bedrooms, and often have eight or more, according to a city staff report from January. One challenge in controlling their proliferation, say city staff, is to find a way to regulate mini-dorms without putting an undue burden on other residents who wish to add bedrooms to their property.

South side bears brunt of the problem

According to a city staff report from July 2012, the south side area near the Cal campus bears much of the brunt of this problem, due to landlords catering to students who want to live close to campus. The Southside Neighborhood Consortium — the umbrella organization for six neighborhood groups in the area — wrote a memo asking the city to deal with mini-dorms in January 2012. According to the group, there are “at least a couple of dozen properties that have become mini-dorms over the last few years.”

In a typical situation, according to the group, an investor purchases an existing unit with, say, three bedrooms. The owner then adds bedrooms to the property without adding any additional common space or parking, then markets the property to students. One resident who spoke last week said an estimated 12-14 students may live in one of these homes at any given time.

“The typical outcome of these conversions is, effectively, a ‘party house’ that generates unacceptable levels of noise, trash, poorly maintained yards and structures, greater numbers of cars requiring parking, and late-night traffic,” according to the memo. “Owners of mini-dorms generally are unresponsive to requests to manage their properties in a manner that would reduce negative impacts because of the revenue that would be lost by lowering density or by enforcing ‘no party’ clauses in leases, etc.”

‘Cycle of neighborhood degradation’

These mini-dorms, according to the memo, lead to “a vicious cycle of neighborhood degradation” as residents move out due to the problems posed by mini-dorms, and investors then snatch up the properties to convert them into more mini-dorms: “In this way, long-term homeowners and tenants are displaced with a transient population that tends to view the Berkeley community as a place to ‘party’ in an irresponsible manner.”

Last Tuesday night, July 16, the council voted to ask the city’s Planning Commission to develop an ordinance designed to regulate mini-dorms. The ordinance would control the addition of bedrooms in some residential zones, and may be modeled on a related ordinance in San Luis Obispo. Council also asked the commission to consider creating an “overlay district,” which could limit the regulations to a certain area, such as south of campus, rather than having it apply city-wide.

The ordinance would apply only to new construction, and would require a use permit with a public hearing for the addition of a sixth bedroom or more. It would not apply to other types of group housing — such as fraternities and sororities, dorms or rooming houses — which are defined differently under the city code.

Council has several policies in contention

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf noted that the new limitation seemed to be somewhat in opposition to a recent council decision to allow property owners to build additional in-law type units on their property with fewer administrative hurdles. That would ultimately mean, once the mini-dorm ordinance is final, that adding a sixth bedroom would require more review — including fees of an estimated $5,000 — than construction of a detached in-law unit.

Replied city attorney Zach Cowan: “The council has various policies that are in contention with each other, and that’s just another one. ”

Councilman Jesse Arreguín said ultimately the city needs to improve enforcement of its ordinances to ensure that problems associated with mini-dorms are kept to a minimum: “What it really comes down to is enforcing the existing law and whatever new policy we adopt.”

In response to concerns expressed by Councilman Laurie Capitelli that the new ordinance wouldn’t solve all the problems noted by residents, Councilman Kriss Worthington said that, at least, it’s a start.

“I do agree it won’t work for all of the people all of the time,” said Worthington. “We’re not proposing this as a panacea to solve all the problems. This is just one tool that’s proposed for us to move forward.”

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  • Don’t Ever Change Ever

    “Rental units constructed after June 30, 1980, provided such units were not created by rehabilitation or conversion,” are partially exempt.

    Aren’t most of the units in question conversions?

    http://www.cityofberkeley.info/Rent_Stabilization_Board/Home/Guide_to_Rent_Control_in_Berkeley_Chapters_1,_2,_3.aspx#requirement_to_register

  • PragmaticProgressive

    PS

    12.76.010 Definitions.

    A. “Camper” means a structure designed to be mounted upon or attached to a motor vehicle and to provide facilities for human habitation or camping purposes.

    B. “House car” means a motor vehicle originally designed or permanently or temporarily altered and equipped for human habitation, or to which a camper has been permanently or temporarily attached. (Ord. 6766-NS § 1 (part), 2003: Ord. 4462-NS § 1, 1970)

  • PragmaticProgressive

    This was a multi-unit building with only one vacancy. THe other 4 units are all occupied and paying, IN TOTAL, less than 2600/month for between 1 and 3 bedrooms.

    Someone who is paying $500/month for a 2BR under rent control is not going to get nonessential repairs, ever.

  • fran haselsteiner

    That’s what I wanted to know. Thanks.

  • YBMe

    Well, the headline of this article is really more the LOL here. Berkeley isn’t “cracking down” on anything. They can pass another law, but if no one enforces it or no one really cares what’s going on around them, then oh well. Call it a crack down if you like, but that is about as easy to dribble around as a 300-lb couch potato. Take a look at 2225 Blake. And while there, stop and look at 2219 Blake, too, which is not a min-dorm, but yet another example of a no-one cares what goes on and no one who does can do anything about it.

  • EBGuy

    Guest, I’d give you a like if I was registered. Obviously, the city should enforce code violations (like in the “flying cottage” case), but really, I think the free market (and small claims court) is the place to sort this out. If landlords are creating nuisances, the neighbors can take them to small claims court. I wouldn’t be against the city (or the rent board) posting a how to for these DYI cases. Five thousand dollars per plaintiff times the number of neighbors complaining can really make a landlord reconsider their “business plan”. As NOLO Press says on their website: “Of course, what you really want is for the nuisance to stop. But getting a small claims court to order your neighbor [or landlord] to pay you money can be amazingly effective. And suing in small claims court is easy, inexpensive, and doesn’t require a lawyer.”

    http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/noise-ordinance-noisy-neighbor-30308-3.html

  • YBMe

    BTW, 2225 Blake is currently being converted from a 9-bedroom duplex (4-5 beds each) to a 16 bedroom rooming house. Depending on who you end up talking to at the city, it is under permit, but some say it is not. Meanwhile the additional living space is already built, demolition all done, foundation poured, more heating added, laundry added, etc. without any neighbors having being informed.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Not all renters are students.

  • curiousjorge

    of course not but this article is about the scourge of mini-dorms filled with “a transient population”… that’s why rent control is irrelevant to the article.

  • guest

    Minidorms exist partly because UC Berkeley housing is really expensive.

    Here is my kids bill for a triple in the dorms, with only a partial meal plan…

    07/16/13 AUG RM & BRD CLARK KERRHOUSNG 08/15/13 1,235.60
    07/16/13 SEP RM & BRD CLARK KERR HOUSNG 09/15/13 1,235.60
    07/16/13 OCT RM & BRD CLARK KERR HOUSNG 10/15/13 1,235.60
    07/16/13 NOV RM & BRD CLARK KERR HOUSNG 11/15/13 1,235.60
    07/16/13 DEC RM & BRD CLARK KERR HOUSNG 12/15/13 1,235.60
    07/13/13 UNIVERSITY FEES REGIST 08/15/13 6,503.75
    07/13/13 HEALTH INSURANCE REGIST 08/15/13 1,007.00

  • guest

    The online public record seems to show purchase for $675k in April 2009, and a total remodel with approved permits in 2010. 3 rental units with rent ceilings of

    4908.04, 4443.07 and

    6406.29, and a current assessment of $705k for a tax bill of 12,456.92. I would have guessed all that work would have added more than 30k to the value.

  • Nate Dahl

    The Building Permit Number is 11-1785. The application was submitted before the mini-dorm ordinances. It does not convert the duplex into a boarding house. It maintains the duplex as two separate dwelling units. It does increase number of bedrooms from 9 to 16.

  • fran haselsteiner

    So what are we paying taxes for if the city won’t enforce its own ordinances or state law? It should be the city’s job to deal with nuisances, especially drug houses. In such a case It’s not okay for neighbors to have to put their safety on the line. I haven’t been involved in one of these cases, but I suspect the neighbors have to do a lot of work to bring together real evidence, and clearly they have to put up with the nuisance way beyond any reasonable amount of time. And didn’t a grand jury take the city to task over this issue?

  • guest

    Incredible: 16 bedrooms does not constitute a boarding house. Who signed off on that?

  • you must be joking

    We have codes up the wazoo, often unenforced by the City and ignored by some property owner who make a living exploiting students.

  • Been There Done That

    We have tons of codes, and a city government that basically refuses to enforce them if they’re not being sued; I’ve lived in multiple unsafe buildings in Berkeley, and been through numerous inspections. NOTHING ever gets fixed that actually improves safety or quality of living. Berkeley is the worst city to be a renter. Landlords can get away with anything that doesn’t (immediately) kill you.

  • YBMe

    Sure, that helps none whatsoever. DId you want to respond to 9 bedrooms going to 16 with no neighbors notified? The permit front office is unaware of that application apparently. Was notice not required when adding ft2 at the property line and increasing bedrooms before the “cracking down” (again LOL) started? Maybe you can help me figure out how many bedrooms I can legally convert my single family house to. Is it more than 5 because 7 would be positive cash flow for me. Or is that now a no-no. I want to know how 16 bedrooms is legal and how no notice to neighbors is legal? I’m sure their is a way.

  • YBMe

    Another useful response would be why was all this work done before the permit is approved? Unless it’s been approved, but the city website says the “date in” for this permit is 7/22, which was Monday. Date out is 7/30. Yet, the addition is already done, as is most all of the work. Mismanagement anyone? Neighbors, busy with jobs and kids and lives can only assume remodeling and such when they see construction folks. How does the neighborhood know there are additions taking place and bedroom density increases if not notified by the responsible party, the city? Is the idea that we don’t want the neighbors to know b4 it’s done? Why would anybody think that finding this out at the 11th hour wouldn’t piss off neighbors who live here with the consequences? It’s the terrible adult management (building excesses first and then the lack of maintenance after) that’s infuriating, not the students.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Because city staff are often, though not always, lazy and unhelpful. Try getting the blight ordinances enforced.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I guess I see the article as a starting point for conversation, not as a limit to the scope.

  • guest

    2225 Blake…B’side’s chance for some truly useful investigative reporting…Emilie?

  • Chris J

    You’re right. Plenty of laws on the books to cover the problems of these mini dorms. Problem as ever is enforcement.

  • guest

    This issue, and others like it, are the compelling reasons we need a pro-student city council member – as elected under the proposed redistricting program.

    Worthington’s helplessness on mini-dorms, the park, Telegraph, etc. will be replaced by substantive input and facilitation.

  • guest

    Thanks for the info. At least our parking enforcement officer has agreed to cite them early and often.

  • Dude1883

    Berkeley is a city where everyone demands to have it both ways – look at the BART construction, for example.

  • CommonSense765

    Isn’t capitalism fun? Making tons of money and exploiting people is fabulous, yes? Unless it’s the guy who owns the property next to you creating cubicle living for college kids. How about instead of Berkeley & the mayor kissing luxury real estate developer butt, Berkeley insists that new housing builds actually serve minimum wage level people (thus benefitting both students on budgets & the many, many, many minimum wage Berkeley workers who must commute from afar (or live locally in rabbit warrens.) Those wiley developers just love building for the millionaire set (who apparently become apoplectic at the thought of mixed income housing & potentially rubbing elbows with common folk) & have repeatedly tried to get out of including affordable units in their new projects. I think we have enough $2300-2600 per month one bedroom apartments in Berkeley already. THIS is why the mini-dorm situation persists & flourishes. Even a job at $15 an hour full time (that grosses $2400 BEFORE taxes) these one bedroom apartments are not affordable, especially if you hew to the rational advice of never spending more than 1/4 to 1/3 of your monthly income on housing. It is the cost of housing that drives up the need for higher wages. Every smart small business owner should be agitating for truly affordable housing. Everyone who advocates for education should be agitating for affordable housing so that students do not have to acquire so much (more) debt and work multiple jobs to get by.

  • CommonSense765

    I’m so tired of kvetching about People’s Park and the attack on common spaces in general. Bryan – Walnut Creek is about 15 miles east. You would like it. Please leave & don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

  • CommonSense765

    UCB doesn’t take responsibility for much of anything. These are the same greedy folks who put an underground training facility for human beings directly on an earthquake fault and high fire danger area, located on a road with limited accessibility. Doesn’t exactly scream “responsibility” but it sure can yodel “profits.” Raise that tuition & hire someone formerly with Homeland Security — UCB just showing their “responsible” love.

  • bfg

    Yet UC hates negative press and they can be surprisingly responsive when there is a strong media focus. The trick would be to connect this mini dorm issue to inadequate UC housing. It’s a little difficult because the media is unbelievably deferential in its attitude toward the University.

  • guest

    Capitalism IS fun. If you’ve got the wits to play it right. If low wage folks find a place in Berkeley the can afford, great. If not, that’s why Oakland and BART exist. Then, when they rise through the classes and move to Berkeley (as a result of theirs wits and hard work) they won’t have to worry about rubbing anything against their similarly well-to-do neighbors.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    Judging from your comments here, you seem to be the expert on kvetching – of the lunatic fringe variety.

    “Isn’t capitalism fun? Making tons of money and exploiting people is
    fabulous, yes? Unless it’s the guy who owns the property next to you
    creating cubicle living for college kids. How about instead of Berkeley
    & the mayor kissing luxury real estate developer butt, Berkeley
    insists that new housing builds actually serve minimum wage level people”

    “These are the same greedy folks who put an underground training facility
    for human beings directly on an earthquake fault and high fire danger
    area, located on a road with limited accessibility. Doesn’t exactly
    scream “responsibility” but it sure can yodel “profits.””

    Crazy stuff. If Berkeley required all housing to be affordable to minimum wage earners, it would just mean that no housing would be built at all.

  • guest

    The city code still prohibits persons from living in vehicles parked on city streets. But you need to call the cops when someone is actually in the vehicle.

    “one house car may be placed, kept and maintained IN THE REAR of any single-family or duplex residential building”

  • PragmaticProgressive

    and can only be slept in 3 consecutive days in a 90 day period.

    In other words, if your RV-living relatives turn up for a long weekend every three months, fine. But they can’t use the RV for anything other than sleeping and they have to respect the setbacks.

  • soij

    Essential Berkeley services are paid for through property tax – that tax assumes a certain housing density. When you start sticking 14 people in a SFR, you add all kinds of infrastructure demand without a proportional increase in revenue. Roads, sewers, open space, etc., are all overburdened without a way to pay for the excess. This is just property investors shifting costs to the city to increase profits while degrading the quality of life for the neighbors – all while ignoring the law. The city is right to address this and they should do it with new laws as well as aggressive existing code enforcement.

  • Neighbor of college students

    Why not just address the nuisance – noise, parking, trash, poor maintenance, etc? Make the street permit parking and limit street permits to 2 cars per household. Or demand off street parking for each permitted bedroom minus 1 (6 bedrooms = 5 off street parking spaces.), but don’t allow the paving over of the front yard. Establish a noise ordinance and cite the house for loud parties. Have the police arrive at 6:00 AM and pound loudly on the door to give warnings and citations for late night parties the previous evening.

  • Henry Chinaski

    Based on your username and the fact that you think driving a car and MOVING IT EVERY TWO HOURS is less costly than BART, I’m pretty sure you’renot a UCB student. Either that or admission requirements have gone down the toilet.

  • backtooakland

    Teabagger.

  • Chris J

    Wow. Tax bill of $12k+? Wow. I mean, our tax bill on our 3br home is about $5k each year…its manageable and all, but I’m trying to imagine paying a mortgage AND saving an extra grand at least each month for property tax…?

    (shiver)