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Friday, Sept. 7, 2007 | Fall classes began last week for 35,000 students at San Diego State University. And as those students returned to classes, they returned to a roiling debate over their place as tenants in the neighborhood.
The fight continues for scores of university neighborhood residents and activists rallying against what they call mini-dorms — usually houses holding a half-dozen to 10 students and their accompanying noise, trash and cars.
“It’s probably more of the same,” said Alice Buck, director of a redevelopment project committee in the area. “The parties really do a spike this week. And with the heat, they have all their windows open, [the neighbors] are really attuned to it.”
As the school year heats up, university officials and students, lawmakers and the mini-dorm fighters are back on the ground in a battle that intensified in the summer. The debate re-entered the public consciousness in fall 2006 after reaching a fever pitch.
A law enforcement project to fine tenants and owners for noise and behavior offenses (out-of-control parties) has been picking up steam since it was implemented in April, with police issuing $1,000 administrative citations to at least 55 people in 22 properties since then. Chronic party houses have been banned from throwing parties. In July, the City Council passed a number of measures related to parking, the number of bedrooms and driveway widths designed to limit the development of mini-dorms.
SDSU has announced additions to its master plan that would add nearly 3,000 beds to its on-campus housing stock, nearly doubling the current number. That would corral a sizable herd of students out of surrounding neighborhoods and into on-campus housing, where many residents want them.
And the Planning Commission voted Thursday to recommend the City Council approve two amendments to the city code that target the phenomenon. Residents of the SDSU neighborhoods came to speak in favor of the stricter regulations. Those amendments will now move to the City Council for debate.
But obstacles persist for opponents of the controversial housing arrangements. Even those proposals hold some loopholes because of state and federal law that prohibits regulating houses occupied by renters differently than owner-occupied units, and because the city would need to hire more enforcement officers to keep the houses in check at a time when tight budgets mean job losses for many city staff.
And beyond logistics, mini-dorms have some residents so worked up it threatens the idea that they’ll ever be happy to live in the same place where young people live.
“Of course, we all know it’s not just State kids,” said Mitch Younker of El Cerrito. “It’s people partying in the State area. We’ve seen a real focus on the issue at the city level, but more residential homes have been developed (into mini-dorms).”
Some College Area residents have decried a proposed student apartment development on El Cajon Boulevard that would add beds for 900 to 1,000 students because of its proximity to established neighborhoods.
But that concern unfairly transfers the mini-dorm frustration to the new project, said Scott Maloni, spokesman for developer JPI.
“There’s not enough attractive and professionally managed places for students to live,” Maloni said. “They’re not obligated to live on campus.”
The project would extend leases on individual bedrooms to students after they sign behavior agreements, and would have professional management and student resident advisors, a sort of private dorm. He said the company plans to present the project at various community council functions before it approaches the city planners.
“There’s a great deal of misinformation out there,” he said. “But there’s definitely a cross-section of the community that will never be satisfied with its relationship with San Diego State.”
Tom Hanscom, director of media relations for SDSU, said the school’s planned on-campus housing addition will only make sense when students want to live there. The current on-campus housing stock absorbed every student who wanted to live there except about 100 this semester, Hanscom said. School officials helped place those students in off-campus rooms — not in mini-dorms, he emphasized — in the surrounding area.
“We’re considering that you cannot force students to live on campus,” he said.
At the Planning Commission meeting Thursday, planners from the city’s Development Services Department proposed mandating a revocable permit for high-occupancy houses, those housing six or more adults. The permit would cost homeowners about $1,000 annually, and would, among other considerations, tighten parking requirements even more. Possible exceptions would apply for adults without vehicles or driver’s licenses.
The City Attorney’s Office presented plans for a rooming house ordinance that seeks to stop homes from being rented as rooming houses in “residential-single” or, commonly, single-family zones citywide. The ordinance would label homes with at least three bedrooms and three separate leases as commercial enterprises and restrict them to neighborhoods used for multiple uses. If the ordinance is approved, the City Attorney’s Office said the existing mini-dorms that are in single-family zones would have seven years to be phased out.
“It’s just more tools in the toolbox to protect the quality of life” in the single-family neighborhoods, said the deputy city attorney who drafted the ordinance, Marianne Greene.
Amanda Lee, the city planner in charge of the ordinance, said one of the biggest concerns is the addition of staff to cover the enforcement of the ordinances, should the City Council vote to implement them.
“We’re moving away from enforcing measurable codes and putting staff in the position of tracking the number of people in the house, the vehicles, the lease agreements,” she said.
“Certainly, it’ll be difficult to enforce, but I think the residents were appreciative of this step forward with solutions.”