Berkeley council rejects settlement over nuisance house

The city has identified 2133 Parker St. as a nuisance due to zoning code violations. A neighbor submitted this photograph Tuesday, which shows a discarded chair outside as of December. According to the resident who submitted it, the chair had been outside already for at least weeks when the photo was taken, and was still there as of Jan. 26.

The city has identified 2133 Parker St. as a public nuisance due to zoning code violations. A neighbor submitted this photograph Tuesday, which shows a discarded chair outside the home as of December. According to the resident who submitted it, the chair had been outside already for at least several weeks when the photo was taken, and was still there as of Jan. 26.

The Berkeley City Council roundly rebuffed a proposed settlement Tuesday night aimed to address problems at a “loud, unruly” party house south of the Cal campus that’s been described in testimony by neighbors as a “mini-dorm.”

Neighbors described issues with noise, drunken partiers, nudity and trash. Problems with the property, at 2133 Parker St., have been ongoing for years. In January 2012, the Berkeley City Council deemed the house a public nuisance, saying it was breaking zoning rules as a “group living accommodation” in an area that does not allow that type of housing. According to Tuesday night’s staff report, the property has 17 bedrooms across three units.

In 2012, council members told the property owner, Ali Eslami, he had to remove 10 bedrooms from the home to fix the problem. In response, Eslami sued the city the following May. Last fall, Eslami and the city attorney’s office reached a proposed settlement they hoped would put an end to the legal battle, allow Eslami to keep the existing bedrooms on site, and result in an improved environment for neighbors due to a range of guidelines Eslami agreed to follow.

Council considered that settlement Tuesday night, but ultimately found it lacking. About a dozen neighbors spoke against the settlement, asking the council to move forward with the abatement process to force Eslami to remove the bedrooms, as previously determined.

Among the neighbors, concern and anger about Eslami and his approach to housing in Berkeley was rampant. Eslami owns numerous properties around town that residents described as “overpopulated, under-maintained and just an eyesore.” Neighbors referenced at least two properties on Parker, and one on Etna.

“We’ve gotta stop this guy,” local resident George Beier told the council. “He can no longer do business in Berkeley anywhere.”

Councilman Gordon Wozniak, who attended the meeting by phone, was met with loud cheers when he said he believed the city had been right to determine 2133 Parker a nuisance. He said group living homes do not belong in low-density areas, and “don’t fit in the general plan at all,” despite the “huge financial incentives” that exist for property owners to create them.

“We should say, ‘No, it’s wrong,'” Wozniak said. “We should … take Mr. Eslami to court and beat him.”

Councilman Max Anderson said there was no way he could support the proposed settlement presented Tuesday night.

“There is too much history, too much testimony, too much awareness on the part of the people who are directly affected by this,” he said. He added that, though it might be to the city’s financial advantage to settle the lawsuit rather than fight it, “sometimes it’s just wrong. Something is just wrong. It strips people of their voices and their prerogatives. It strips people of their property rights.”

Councilwoman Linda Maio described the general feeling on the dais as “outraged” about “the horrible things that have been done to homes, the neighborhood itself, the character, the fiber of the neighborhood,” as well as the neighbors themselves.

“Our job is to figure out what our strong points are,” she said, regarding the legal case. “Not, as Councilman Anderson said, reward someone who’s kind of gone through the back door to his extreme advantage.”

The council voiced its unanimous rejection of the settlement, and asked city staff to collect more documentation related to complaints about the property. Councilman Darryl Moore was not in attendance.

Neighbors said they were pleased with the decision, and hope the city will stick with its prior determination telling Eslami to remove 10 bedrooms.

“It was exactly what we wanted,” said Phil Bokovoy, a representative of some of the neighbors who have been advocating against the situation at 2133 Parker.

Property owner Ali Eslami, who attended the meeting, declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal process.

The council is set to consider the broader issue of regulating mini-dorms in Berkeley in March, with the city Planning Commission also set to take a look at the issue in the spring, according to the staff report prepared for Tuesday night’s meeting.

Related:
The Lowdown: Berkeley Council on historic overlay, mini-dorms, violence prevention, 2020 Vision (01.28.14)
Berkeley officials crack down on ‘mini-dorms’ (07.24.13)

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  • Woolsey

    Who came up with that settlement? It’s sort of like I shoplift 5 bottles of whiskey and the penalty is to give one of them back.

  • just a thought

    Perhaps if NIMBY neighbors stopped protesting against every new housing development the existing housing might not get so crowded.

  • Tizzielish

    Berkeley is about to get a ton of new housing downtown but it will not stop the practice of converting single family homes into unregulated, often unsafe and overcrowded living spaces to squeeze as many students for as much rent as possible. It’s not just Esalami.

    It must be horrible to own a single family home and have your neighborhood disrupted by a seventeen bedroom property full of often-partying students with no investment in the community.

    Thank goodness the council rejected this absurd settlement.

  • David D.

    It sounds like he could keep all 5 bottles with the settlement. He would just have to wear nicer shoes when he walks out of the store with them.

  • Erika

    I sympathize with the neighbors if the property is actually an eyesore, loud, poorly maintained, etc. What I cannot relate to is why a low density area is by definition a bad place for a denser property (or a few)? I mean, why is a building that holds 2 to 3 times more people than typical in that neighborhood really inherently a problem? In some ways, it actually seems ideal.

  • Roberto H.

    Erika,

    Berkeley, like every city in the U.S., has a general plan that sets out densities for different parts of the City. General plans are adopted by cIty councils after a public process where everybody gets to have their say. In Berkeley, three zoning districts, R-1, R-2, and R-3, are to be low and medium density. This represents the synthesis of the community’s desires as interpreted the Berkeley City Council. What is not fair or appropriate is to have projects approved that ignore the General Plan density limits that the whole community has agreed upon after a multi-year planning process. If you, as a citizen of Berkeley, think that it’s ok to have 2- to 3-times the density in the R-1, R-2, and R-3 districts, you should ask the City Council to “up=zone” these districts. Until the Council does that, developers (and Berkeley’s planning staff) need to live by the community’s rules!

  • Bishop George Berkeley

    Does anyone else get the impression that our well-paid city attorneys office is just a wee-bit litigation-shy? It seems like anyone willing to play chicken with them (cf. Ken Sarachan) will eventually earn a “settlement” that looks a lot like a victory….
    Anyway, thanks to George Beier, Phil Bokovoy, and others willing to hold the Council’s feet to the fire. The Council vote exhibited uncommon (for them) backbone.

  • Odd

    It seems strange that someone who doesn’t like college students and college culture would move literally across the street from a major university.

  • Geography

    The house is literally 2.5 blocks away from UC Berkeley campus.

  • George Beier

    Phil B, David S, Chris L (and many others!) get major kudos for their work on this. Of course high-density buildings can be good thing — provided that they conform to the General Plan and local zoning ordinance. This building did not.

    This is a watershed moment for development in Berkeley. We finally have councilmembers on record citing density that exceeds the General Plan as a reason for denying a project. This will go along way to protecting neighborhoods.

  • Guest

    No, it’s more like 5 blocks to campus. And the surrounding area is not zoned for high density housing.

  • George Beier

    Hey thanks, but my part was really small. Not being modest, just saying how it is.

  • Cassandra

    It’s 6 blocks from the UC Berkeley campus.

  • Roberto H.

    Wow, what a comment! Don’t you think that it is equally odd that some CAL
    students think that Berkeley’s laws and standards do not apply to them like they do everyone else who lives in our community? Yours is the ultimate entitled attitude of an affluent college kid: “I get to be a nuisance because I’m a student and that’s what we do…so too bad if you don’t like it.”

  • Roberto H.

    How is this mis-fact relevant to my point?

  • guest

    Did you move here before UC Berkeley was established?

  • Geography

    It’s relevant because the mis-fact is your use of the short end of blocks to measure blocks which is misleading.

    If you don’t like students and student culture, don’t move to within 3 city blocks of one of the oldest public universities in the state. It’s that simple.

  • Roberto H.

    Hmm…the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a block as “an area of land surrounded by four streets in a city” and the distance is the “length of one-city block”. Says nothing about “long” blocks as the standard for measurement….but in any event 2133 Parker is 8 tenths of a mile from the main campus.

    Now, about student culture. Exactly what part of student culture says that you get to ignore city laws and the UC Berkeley Campus Code of Student Conduct? Sorry, arrogance is not a culture.

  • EBGuy

    Here’s my summary from reading and skimming the documents (as always, corrections welcome).
    Owner improves property with plans (sorta) approved by city. Students hold wild party and are cited under the Second Response Ordinance (BMC Section 13.48.020). If they are cited again within the next 120 days the property owner and partiers will be fined $750 for the next offense, $1500 for the third, and $2,000. No subsequent fines are levied. Neighbors attempt to throw the book at unruly students and landlord with a public nuisance declaration and a I can’t believe its not a group home ruling.

    I think the landlord should be held accountable for his ‘second unit’ that rents as apartments 2 and 3, but I’m not sure the city has a lot to go on… which is why they want to settle.

  • Bearparent

    While Cal has ramped up enrollment through the years, they haven’t provided much in the way of additional housing – expecting neighboring communities to handle the resulting overflow. Our neighborhood is filled with students, the vast majority of which are quiet and delightful neighbors. The exception seems to be those who are living in over-crowded tenements, such as Mr. Eslami’s properties. These folks are spoiled brats living in firetraps. They appear to be asking for all the rights of adulthood with none of the responsibilities.

  • The Kraken

    Agreed – our fair city has, as Theodore Roosevelt would say, “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

  • Completely_Serious

    “Until the Council does that, developers (and Berkeley’s planning staff) need to live by the community’s rules!”

    Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.

    If only Planning and ZAB followed the rules!

  • People’s Dorms

    Perhaps the community should work with UC Berkeley to try to get them to turn People’s Park into student housing.

    A win-win for the community since it would remove the largest source of crime and get more students on campus and out of neighborhood housing.

  • BerkelBear

    As a student who lives in one of these “mini-dorms” (I had never even heard that phrase before), it’s a shame these rowdier students are turning Berkeley’s public against us. These living situations are as much about economic realities (e.g. cheaper rent, shared facilities, living close to campus, the opportunity to share food, group bargaining with landlords to lower rent and fix things) as community (e.g. living with multiple friends, having a space to entertain that’s an alternative to frats and co-ops).

    After almost two years living in my big, old, beautiful house of 14 people, I cannot have wished for a better living situation. And I’m thankful I didn’t have to live in some of the supposedly “up to code” apartments where my friends live, which are rundown, drafty, and unresponsive to tenant requests.

    Couldn’t these neighborhood groups try and work with students and come to an understanding? If that was attempted and failed, it should at least be part of the story. Otherwise, this is what many of us have to do to both go to Cal and live in Berkeley.

  • Roberto H.

    Unfortunately, since student turnover is high at mini-dorms, any understanding reached with one group of residents has to be “re-negotiated” with the next. It is unreasonable to expect neighbors to have to continually negotiate student behavior every summer and fall when you get turnover. For this reason, neighbors are asking that the City shift the burden for managing and controlling mini-dorm behavior from the folks living around mini-dorms to the rental owner who is making big bucks renting their property. Once their income is on the line, they will pay attention to what’s going on. Thank you for contributing to the conversion!

  • Devin

    I agree with your statements about UCB and there being a serious lack of university-provided housing but I don’t think its fair to blanket-characterize the students as spoiled brats simply for living in an over-crowded house. It seems to me they are being used by greedy people who build such firetraps – when I was a student, I lived two blocks from this property with 5 others- we partied once in a while, but I wouldn’t have called us irresponsible. As BerkelBear notes below, finding a reasonably-priced place to live near campus with your friends is a huge find for a student and it is unrealistic to expect students to live the same lifestyle as a family of 4.

    The problem isn’t students, or the residents being spoiled or irresponsible, its the number under one roof. If 5 students live together and they all invite one friend to a party, you have a nice get together. If you have 14 students and they all invite one friend, its suddenly a massive shindig.

    Honestly though, if the City doesn’t have the guts to stop this guy, I even have trouble blaming him for trying to push the limits. If you don’t hold people to the rules, they’re going to try and get away with whatever they can to make a buck. Our beloved and disgustingly beautiful capitalist system at work :-)

  • Doug F

    Let’s put in a good word for the Berkeley Student Coop, which does pack many students into converted regular houses for about half the price of the university dorms, yet does so in a very responsible & efficient way. Not least because all residents have to put in 5 hours of work per week within the house on cleaning, maintenance or meals. So they have a psychological investment in the general welfare of the house & ‘hood. Even the house managers are fellow students, elected by all residents of that house.

    The only big problem it’s ever had with neighbors involved Barrington, but that was eventually handled to most people’s satisfaction.

  • Geography

    Yes, it is. Measure it by the long side of the blocks not the short side.

  • tenjen

    Are you referring to the property discussed in the article? 2133 Parker Street is not across the street from UC Berkeley, but about 6 blocks south of campus.

  • tenjen

    As Roberto says, the understanding has to be with the property owner, who is responsible for making sure his/her tenants abide by the law.

  • dwss5

    My sentiments exactly about the Council rejecting this settlement!
    And I agree with commentator Cyclist704 when that person wrote about Ali Eslami’s projects in The Daily Californian two years ago at http://www.dailycal.org/2012/02/07/wrongful-termination/
    …… start quote ……
    Ali Eslami has built a number these projects on south side, and each one
    of them is a neighborhood nuisance. His tenants trash the
    neighborhoods, receive numerous nuisance citations, and constantly
    disturb their neighbors, both students and long time residents. Most of
    his projects have been the subject of stop work orders due to illegal
    construction. He is a blight in the community and receives rents on his
    properties that are at least 50% higher than comparable south side
    rents. He takes advantage of students, neighbors, and puts nothing back
    in our community.
    …… finish quote ……

    Do I actually know neighbors DIRECTLY affected by Ali Eslami’s student tenants?
    Yep, sure do.

    Do I think that Ali Eslami will connive to overturn the Council’s decision against the settlement through whatever means possible?
    Absolutely!!

  • EBGuy

    Staff has been suggesting something like this settlement for over two years. They are trying to save the city from an expensive lawsuit. Staff has always recognized this as a by right alteration (read the ZAB and council documents). From the May 2011 staff report:

    “As a by right alteration, application of the District Purposes or the City’s Non-
    Detriment findings is not applicable (a by-right use allowed via a Zoning Certificate automatically promotes the purposes of the District, and thus would not pose detriment).
    To comply with the approved Zoning Certificate, we require that the dwellings be used by a household, as defined in the Zoning Ordinance. As with other properties owned by the applicant, the applicant intends to rent the dwellings to households, and the
    City is obligated to treat them as such absent evidence to the contrary (and there is no evidence that he intends to do otherwise). A notice of limitation was filed on the title to state that this property shall be used as a three-unit residential development and that each unit shall be occupied by a single household as defined by the Zoning Ordinance.”

    I’m certainly not against the city addressing the mini-dorm phenomena for future developments, but attempting an illegal taking against this property owner will only bring us grief.

  • mtaysic

    Or even 10 blocks