SANTA CLARA -- Students, landlords, and residents are battling over a proposed ordinance that would prevent single family homes from converting to multifamily units -- a move aimed squarely at the Santa Clara University student body.
Proponents of the ordinance discussed at Monday night's City Council meeting say it will cut back on a trend in the Mission City: owners turning homes into boardinghouses or "mini-dorms" in order to rent to SCU students.
Students argue it unfairly targets them and will only force them to live farther from campus and cause more traffic congestion.
While the council isn't expected to vote on the ordinance until later this year, the city staff favors the ordinance.
"Single-family property owners who buy property in a single-family neighborhood have a right to expect that everyone around them is going to be a single-family use," said City Manager Julio Fuentes at the meeting.
The debate highlights not only the ongoing problem of affordable housing in Santa Clara, where rental prices have soared up in recent years, but also the resulting property battle between making student housing affordable and accommodating families concerned about rowdy students living near them.
Fuentes emphasized that residents would still be able to rent to friends and family. And as long as landlords who rent their houses to more than two students or unrelated adults obtain a new permit, they will not be affected by the ordinance, he said. But they will have to maintain the property to the ordinance's new standards -- no "unruly gatherings" and keeping the house in good living condition.
Students and landlords argued that it will affect them, as well as anyone else looking to rent with a few friends to cut costs, by imposing a fee on landlords to maintain their rentals and creating new burdensome regulations.
Kevin Riley, the city's director of planning, said that registration would probably involve a one-time fee of about $300.
"There are laws in place already that address unruly gatherings," said Greg Toschi, a junior at Santa Clara and co-founder of OneRent.co, a startup that verifies property ownership and lets renters fill out paperwork online to prevent rental fraud. "If they were enforced, it could be easily solved."
But the city emphasized that such boardinghouse rentals are already unlawful, and that in the past, the city has taken a "laissez-faire" attitude toward maintaining single-family zoning.
"We're trying to register these properties, and we're trying to work with property owners that have already converted," said Fuentes. "
In April, some residents noticed that a three-bedroom house on Park Avenue was advertised as a 6-bedroom house. Foreseeing a "mini-dorm" for Santa Clara University students, they complained to the council.
The first version of the ordinance, proposed July 7, prohibited the housing of three or more non-family members in a single-family home, although Fuentes said it wasn't intended to affect existing houses of this type."
More than 100 students showed up at the July meeting to protest the ordinance.
City officials revised the ordinance to address concerns about students losing their housing, and neighbors' concerns about noise from parties. The ordinance will prevent future owners from converting single family homes into multifamily rentals.
Opponents said the new version lacks details about enforcement and permitting and specific examples that illustrate the problem. Landlords also questioned how long a permit would take to be approved and what the appeal process might be if a permit is revoked.
Fuentes agreed that the proposal needed bolstering in the area of due process but that it was a "first step" toward regulating housing development.
But some Santa Clara residents who attended the meeting applauded the ordinance.
"This strengthens the ability of the city and the residents to properly control development in our neighborhood, to allow voices for the residents and not just the developers on how property is developed," said Mark Kelsey, who lives on Hilmar Street near the university.
Sarah Doty, who also lives close to the university, expressed a similar concern about families being priced out of the neighborhood in the last few years by property owners who develop student housing.
Several committee members supported parking permits and improved enforcement of underage drinking laws and the noise ordinance, but were wary of regulating housing.
"I work with a lot of younger engineers who largely have concluded they're never going to be able to buy in the valley," said Planning Commissioner Keith Stattenfield, who lives between two rental units and said he understands the fear of constant partying.
But he also sympathized with young people looking for a place to live.
"I mean it does seem that we are saying that three engineers can't live together," he said, "And I think that makes Santa Clara worse if it happens."