Mayor searches for an end to mini-dorms around colleges

The mayor’s office is working to prevent the conversion of single-family homes into “mini-dorms” crammed full of college students, which will come as welcome news in some La Jolla neighborhoods.

The “mini-dorm” problem is most prevalent in the areas around San Diego State University, but exists in La Jolla as well. Property owners create “mini-dorms” by building walls within existing bedrooms to create more, smaller bedrooms, or by converting spaces such as dining rooms and garages into bedrooms. There is currently nothing in the city’s land development code to prohibit the practice, but the mayor’s office plans to bring proposals to change the code before the City Council in the coming months.

“We’ve had a handful of calls from our district (complaining about mini-dorms), particularly around UCSD,” said Pam Hardy, spokeswoman for City Council President Scott Peters. “People are also concerned about precedent, that if it’s allowed in other areas, it can spread.”

Diane Busch is a La Jolla resident who said the home next to hers on Arenas Street was converted to a mini-dorm two years ago. A group of nine UCSD students, all female, moved into the house and quickly created parking and noise problems, Busch said.

“I have never been so miserable,” she said. “My quality of life went down the tubes.”

A new group of eight girls that has been in the house since last fall is much more respectful, Busch said, but having a house full of eight college students in a single-family neighborhood inevitably creates conflicts.

“My neighbors can’t come home after work and park,” Busch said. “This group (of students) has settled down, but it’s still the coming, the going, the friends that don’t know it’s not a frathouse.”

The only provisions in the land development code that could apply to mini-dorms include a minimum-size bedroom requirement of 50 square feet. The figure is so small that it doesn’t apply to most mini-dorms. The city has twice tried to pass legislation restricting the number of unrelated adults who can live together in a home, but both were struck down by the state Supreme Court.

“We can’t determine who is a family,” Hardy said.

Areas around San Diego State and UCSD are also part of city-defined “campus impact zones.” In those zones, property owners are required to provide a parking space for every bedroom in the house. The regulations, however, are difficult to enforce and can have unintended consequences. In the College Area, some property owners were paving over yards to create parking spaces. Hardy said the City Council would consider implementing the requirements in other areas.

The city recently reached an agreement with two San Diego State graduates who were responsible for dozens of mini-dorm conversions in the College Area and Pacific Beach. A City Council committee also recently voted to authorize San Diego Police officers to give out administrative citations to residents of homes that have been the subject of noise complaints. Previously, only city code enforcement officers could issue the citations, which cost $1,000 and could be imposed on property owners who do not take action against disruptive tenants.

Next will come the mayor’s proposal to change the land development code. Hardy said the issue has not been docketed with the City Council but the mayor has indicated he hopes to make the changes by June. He has not said specifically how the code will change, but the city needs to start by officially recognizing the problem, Hardy said.

“The term ‘mini-dorm’ is nowhere in the municipal code,” she said. “It’s a difficult issue that the city will try to get at in a number of ways.”

The change could come in time to prevent what is still a relatively rare problem in La Jolla. Busch has been talking about her struggles with her mini-dorm neighbor around local governmental groups for the last two years, but hasn’t heard of anyone else in La Jolla with similar problems. But UCSD’s population is always growing and housing is only getting harder for students to afford.

Peters sent a memorandum to the mayor supporting changes to the land development code to prevent the construction of mini-dorms.

“The character of our city’s single-family neighborhoods and the quality of life for the residents who reside there must be protected,” he wrote.