In March 2011, the owner of a single-family home on Nisbet Way near UC Riverside stopped by City Hall and got a permit to double the number of bedrooms – from three to six – by putting in new walls and windows.Angry area homeowners say the approval of such permits is outrageous, because the city’s ordinance restricts rentals in areas zoned for single-family homes to four unrelated tenants.Riverside officials say they understand the frustration, but have to grant the permits to anyone who meets building codes, and the code doesn’t address why the bedrooms are being added.
This dilemma is at the heart of University-area homeowners’ current crusade to make their neighborhood more livable. But with residents demanding a moratorium on extra-room permits that city officials insist they can’t legally stop granting, there’s no obvious or easy solution to the conflict.
The problems that gave rise to this debate aren’t new or unique to Riverside, but homeowners recently organized and started taking their concerns to City Council meetings.
They say they’re fed up with a situation that has gotten worse as UCR’s enrollment has swelled and more homes have been bought by investors and turned into rentals. Residents say inconsiderate renters throw loud, drunken parties, park on the lawn, scatter trash around, and speed down the street, to name a few complaints.
Now, after “suffering in silence for years,” as neighborhood leader Gurumantra Khalsa describes it, homeowners are demanding action from the city and they’re starting to get it. But the extra bedroom permits remain a sticking point.
PERMIT REFORM SOUGHT
The University neighborhood is roughly bounded by Chicago Avenue to the west, Spruce Street to the north, Box Springs Mountain reserve on the east and Le Conte Drive to the south.
City records show that since the beginning of 2010, Riverside has given 18 permits to add extra bedrooms, usually by putting up walls in the living room, in University neighborhood homes. In every case, the home already had three or four bedrooms, and in all but three cases, the new total was five or six bedrooms.
Area resident Letitia Pepper, an attorney, was heartily applauded at a neighborhood meeting Thursday, July 11, when she insisted the city should put a moratorium in place, then make a new rule that prohibits creating extra bedrooms in zones near the city’s one college and three universities.
Pepper said she’s had six offers to buy her property since January.
“One reason they want to buy it is they know in this area they can turn it into a dorm and rent it to a bunch of students,” she said.
Code enforcement officials have received plenty of complaints that property owners are renting too many rooms. From July 2011 to now, there have been 61 cases of alleged violation of the four-renter ordinance, Code Enforcement Manager Gary Merk wrote in an email.
Of those cases, 24 were in the University neighborhood. Three cases citywide ended in citations for the property owner, of which one was near UCR.
City officials are pondering how to ensure people know the rules, and in some cases, education may help.
Property owner Janaky Puthenpurayil, a nurse who lives in Culver City, said she bought a three-bedroom house on Knox Court about seven years ago so her daughter could live in it while attending UCR. Now she rents it to students.
“I was not aware” of the four-person limit, she said, so she hired a contractor to add two more bedrooms. But neighbors complained to the city about her noisy tenants, and she got cited in 2009 for having too many renters.
Because the contractor incorrectly told her she could get the permit for the extra rooms later, Puthenpurayil had to go back to the city in 2011 to get it, she said.
Now she has four tenants, but the reduced rental income makes it harder to pay the mortgage, Puthenpurayil said.
She thinks more than four renters should be allowed, but “if that is the rule, what can I say?” she said. “I spent so much money I had to stick with (the house).”
TRYING TO ENFORCE
Merk said there are various ways code officers can check the number of tenants, such as looking up license numbers of cars in the driveway and postal service records on who’s receiving mail at the address, but it’s like putting a puzzle together.
Not everyone is home at the same time, tenants may have friends over or people simply say they don’t live there, Merk said. Sometimes people who live in the house don’t have their name on the lease.
City officials have vowed to be more aggressive about all code violations, though some homeowners worried a wide net could also snare them for minor infractions.
As to whether the city has done enough to enforce the four-renter rule in the past, City Manager Scott Barber conceded that more can always be done, and the city now intends to do so.
“We recognize that we need to redouble our efforts here, and that’s what we’re committed to,” Barber said Friday, July 12.
Next week the planning commission will discuss possible changes that would require property owners in single-family zones to sign a city agreement to have more than two tenants. That agreement could be revoked if they break the rules. The maximum number of tenants would still be four.
Councilman Mike Gardner, who proposed the changes, said he’s open to other ideas, but he thought this would create more of an economic incentive for people to be good neighbors, because landlords could face fines and loss of rental income.
“This was just an idea for a way to compel those landlords who are less active about monitoring what their tenants do to be better landlords,” he said.
Homeowners want results too, but they may find Gardner’s proposal too tame.
Khalsa said the city must rebuild homeowners’ trust, because the strategies officials are talking about now, such as stepped-up code enforcement and writing more citations for noisy parties, “are things they could have been doing all along but they haven’t been.”
Although some of homeowners’ complaints are with students, it’s perhaps more worrisome to them that homes continue to be bought by investors who intend to rent them out and know they can get more money by putting more people in each house.
Khalsa said a city task force a few years ago determined the neighborhood is about 33 percent owner-occupied homes.
“We can fix the student problem fairly easily, but the rental problem, that’s what this moratorium (request) is about,” he said. “The neighborhood is in real danger of not recovering.”
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Homeowners near UC Riverside say the neighborhood has declined because some renters are out of control. They’re at odds with the city over how many renters are allowed and whether property owners can add more bedrooms.
CURRENT RULES: No more than four renters per house in single-family home zones.
EXTRA BEDROOMS: Since January 2010, the city issued 15 permits to add fifth and sixth bedrooms in the University neighborhood.
VIOLATIONS: In the past two years, the city handled 24 alleged cases of excessive tenants in the neighborhood. One resulted in a citation.