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Monday, Dec. 11, 2006 | They don’t agree on much – bedtimes, music volume or weekend activities.
But there’s one thing college students and families living side-by-side in the neighborhoods surrounding San Diego State University do agree on: the holidays can’t come fast enough.
Students count down to the end of the semester, when they’ll get a few weeks’ break from classes and finals and papers. And the families and elderly residents can’t wait until the students go home for the holiday break. They say that’s the best gift their student neighbors could give them – a little peace and quiet.
“The whole quality of life in the College Area improves at Thanksgiving, and at Christmas break,” said Scott Moomjian, an attorney who sits on the College Area Community Council. “There’s less cars, there’s no students around to party, to make noise.”
But a couple of holiday breaks and summer vacation aren’t enough to soothe the growing frenzy among residents outraged at what they’ve termed “mini-dorms.” These are single-family dwellings converted to rental properties that often house more than five students. Other college towns expect this phenomenon – broke students piling into houses to ease budget constraints. But the trend of landlords converting more and more homes into mini-dorms has become so egregious to residents here that they’ve shown up in droves at recent meetings to discuss the issue.
Their complaints range from parties and noise on otherwise quiet streets to trash accumulation and the number of cars parked in front of the houses. Landlords have made dramatic changes to the properties in the conversion – paving over lawns to make room for more cars and putting up drywall to add bedrooms, and the residents aren’t happy about that, either.
They’re concerned for their quality of life. But in a slowing housing market, homeowners are acutely aware of factors that would diminish their home’s value, such as noise and neighboring parking-lot style front yards. So their concerns with mini-dorms are driven by economics, too.
Diverse people trying to live together in a neighborhood is hardly a new issue. But the long-time residents aren’t the only ones frustrated at a lack of understanding in the us-versus-them debate. Some of the 30,000-plus SDSU students living off campus say they’re often generalized into a faceless group of partying, disrespectful hooligans who want nothing more than to wake up babies in the middle of the night. That doesn’t do them justice, they say.
Often, splitting rent with so many students is they only way they can make it financially. But, they admit, they are college students, and they are going to party. And it is, after all, called College Area.
“It’s not that I don’t care,” said SDSU student Dana Olson. “But if you live in this neighborhood, so close to campus, you’re going to have to expect it.”
When Olson moved into a house off of Montezuma Road in August, she and her four roommates baked cookies as a way to meet their neighbors and start the year off well. But they’ve still had the police show up in response to calls from residents on their street. A couple of times, the calls were for parties they threw, but once was when they were “just laughing at a TV show,” she said.
Students Mike Trueman and Justin Navalle live with six other college students in a house on Montezuma Road. Trueman said their options are limited as they try to balance living close to campus with their rent and tuition payments. When they decided to have a concert in their backyard earlier this year, Navalle made rounds in the neighborhood, alerting residents and asking for their consent.
“They were all OK with it – families, old people, all except for one guy,” he said. The police still came, he said, but they weren’t called by his neighbors.
The students share some of the same concerns as the upset residents. Absentee landlords who add bedrooms to homes don’t always meet building codes when they subdivide rooms. The more rooms a house has, the more rent landlords typically charge.
A recent story in the Daily Aztec, the SDSU student newspaper, described a garage-turned-bedroom in a house rented by students that has exposed fiberglass in the ceiling and three walls constructed of drywall. The need for better enforcement of the building codes already in place is one of the issues raised in the community groups that are examining the mini-dorm phenomenon.
Real estate investor and La Mesa resident Aaron Churder recently purchased two homes near SDSU to rent out to students. His online Craigslist.org advertisement for one of the homes on Montezuma Road proclaims the five-bedroom, three-bathroom house “much cheaper and much better than an apt or dorm!” Churder plans to rent the home for $2,995 per month – divided five ways, that would be a per-student monthly rent of $599. The previous owners paved over most of the yard to create enough parking for seven cars.
Churder, 27, said he hasn’t been following the mini-dorm debate.
“I’m not very political; I try to stay out of that,” Churder said. “That whole block is all students, there’s not really any single-family person who would want to live on that busy street.”
But it’s that kind of absentee landlord that worries residents like Roberta Eidemiller, a homeowner in the College View Estates neighborhood who’s lived there for 50 years. She said there are some landlords who’ve invested in more than a dozen homes each, and can’t possibly keep track of all of their tenants.
“These students don’t realize that there are ordinances that we all follow,” she said. “They figure they can do anything they want, which they can’t.
“It’s to the point where some of us, who would never consider this before, are thinking of moving out of the area.”
Moomjian said that, though the community council feels the issue is at least getting better recognition, the area still has a long way to go. “I have not seen necessarily that much of an impact yet,” he said.
Jason Foster, director of media relations for SDSU, said the school’s long-term plan will include accommodations for one in every four students in on-campus or university-managed, off-campus housing. That compares to the current accommodations for roughly one student in seven – or for about 4,500 of the school’s 33,500 students. He mentioned some school strategies, such as a troupe of good-neighbor students who go out into the neighborhoods on weekend nights and try to “deter a potential loud situation from getting to be a problem.”
Foster theorized that the housing problem feeds on itself. Frustrated homeowners move out of the neighborhood because of loud tenants next door, leaving a vacant house to be seized by an investor who might add a bedroom or two and turn the home into another rental. The more times that happens, the more rental houses there are on the street, and the worse the problem can get.
Other areas of the county see the issue heating up, too – though not to the same extent as the College Area neighborhood. Community advocates in neighborhoods near the county’s other colleges and universities complain about many of the same problems as those at SDSU. School officials, on the whole, take steps to educate their students and enforce neighborly behavior.
But Bridget Blanchan, the dean of students at California State University, San Marcos, said colleges and universities are often blamed when neighbors see any group of young people living in a house; some aren’t necessarily even students.
“We’re in the kind of housing market where people who are working full time are having to expand their living arrangements beyond what they would have been able to do 10 years ago,” she said. “A lot of young working professionals are living with roommates for a lot longer.”
Lauren Schultze, a 20-year-old SDSU student, doesn’t think the issue will go away very soon. She lives with seven other students on a house on Montezuma Road, and she said it does get pretty loud sometimes.
“The farther you go off Montezuma or College, the better it is,” she said. “But it’s fun to live here – we’re in college, you know?”
Schultze admits she and her fellow housemates could be better neighbors to the homeowners in the area.
“They pay their mortgage and all of that, they deserve to have peace and quiet,” she said.