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Thread: Boarding house laws, SRO, rental properties, and what is a "family"?

  1. #1
    Mar 2008
    SF Bay Area, CA

    Boarding house laws, SRO, rental properties, and what is a "family"?

    Forum folks-

    I apologize in advance if this post rambles a bit, I am wading through unfamiliar territory and trying to figure this all out. Please give me the benefit of your guidance.

    My city is undergoing a general plan update process now. During a public discussion on housing, an issue came up that I'm trying to make sense of.

    There is a large amount of residential rental property within the city's older historic neighborhood (though, I don't want to limit the discussion just to historic districts), renting mostly college students. These properties can house 6 or more adult renters. Residential properties are only required to have 2 parking on-site spaces.

    The city's Planner has said that it is impossible to regulate this, because (in California?) municipalities cannot dictate what constitutes a "family" and that any group of people with a competent attorney can answer a complaint is such a way as to present themselves as a family, making enforcement impossible.

    Additionally, I understand that people who rent of rooms within their homes are exempt from many regulations--and I have some sympathy for this argument.

    The renting of property is commerce, shouldn't such property be subject to commercial requirements? Shouldn't the renting of property require a business licence? If such property is owned by a corporation--corporations only exist for commercial purposes--shouldn't it be subject to commercial requirements?

    A few blocks from me is a Victorian that is operated as a bed and breakfast. the couple who owns it rents out 4 rooms in the house in which they live. The have a business license, and collect transient occupancy tax, and are required to have on-site parking for their guests.

    A few blocks farther down is another Victorian where the owner lives in another town (it may even be owned by his LLC) and rents out 6 rooms by the month. This property is not required to have a business license, and is only required to have 2 parking spaces on-site. Guess where the other 4+ cars park.

    A few blocks further on is another Victorian that is owned by an investment group (LLC) and has been leased to a sorority (a not-for-profit corporation) that will house 20 college students and a house mother in it. Again, because this is an R1 property, it is only required to have 2 parking spaces on-site.

    What are other people doing about situations like this? Are there sensible ways to regulate rental single-family properties?


  2. #2
    Sep 2008
    San Francisco, Ca. 94122

    zoning laws in sf for "family"

    We also live in SF in a quiet neighborhood zoned for single family housing. Unfortunately we have a 180 degree fabulous ocean view. A house on our block has just got a permit to add a 3rd story- they owners have been using this for a "boardinghouse". We fear the same will happen with this gigantic structure. The Planning Department has given them an OK- how do we stop them. Recently, they had 7 adult, non-related people living in the 2 bedroom house. I understand people were using the living room and dining room as bedrooms. This house has 1 kitchen and 1 bathroom. Can anyone help me in knowing how to stop them?

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
    Aug 2001
    The Cheese State
    Some thoughts -

    Most places do have acceptable standards for defining a family. California and San Francisco would be an exception if this is not the case.

    Hotel tax collections are usually based on length of occupancy. Stays of 30 days or more are sometimes not taxed, depending on the state.

    Some places have parking regulations based on the number of bedrooms. More bedrooms, more stalls required.

    The sorority is certainly not a single family unit and should be required to provide additional parking - at least in most places. san Francisco may be different.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  4. #4
    Mar 2005
    In the past I have attended the APA national conference sessions on Fair Housing and I recall the attorneys stating that the federal courts will not define a family and that there have been lawsuits against jurisdictions that try to define family. I remember the panel saying that people define family in many different ways and that the courts have said it's not an area they are going to touch. What I took away from that is that municipalities really have no business regulating the definition of family and the courts have said it's not constitutional to do so. Even still every jurisdicion I've worked in has defined family and tried to regulate family. One jurisdiction was sued and lost.

    It's a sensitive issue and I it's my professional opinion that out time is better spent trying to attack the symptoms rather than the use/definition.

    ETA: Other types of residential/commercial uses like bed and breakfasts or sorority can be set up as conditional or special uses as long as they are not overregulated and become a regulatory taking. I worked in a college town and there was a separate use category for each of those uses. Those uses have different characteristics than a single family house so it makes sense to treat them differently.

    As a planner I am primarily focused on use and impacts from the use. Whether or not a single family is renting or owns a house has no impact on how they function as a use. Any family can be a nuisance whether they rent or own. We can surmise that a demographic (rent versus own) may have tendencies toward certain characteristics but that is discrimination in my opinion. The use is occupation of a housing unit by a family. That is the same use whether they rent or own. It's similar with condo regimes. It's an ownership pattern, not a use pattern. It gets back to my previous comment on regulating symptoms or nuisances. Obviously this was a major issue in the college town I worked for and every attempt as regulating "room-renters" was a waste of time whereas dealing with the issue as a nuisance would have been more effective because you're talking about court, fines and liens on housing versus the constitutionality of defining a family. I like the idea of parking related to bedrooms and I have seen that done before.

    That's my two cents. Sorry if I digressed.
    Last edited by CDT; 01 Oct 2008 at 1:15 PM.

  5. #5
          abrowne's avatar
    Jan 2005
    Regulate by use not user. I think its a bit of a stretch to say that 6 unrelated college students constitute a family. That's a boarding house. It's one thing to have an adopted kid or a child from another marriage and live in a house and another thing entirely to cram 20 sorority sisters in. I think this is clear enough, even in court (though maybe not the kangaroo Californian courts).

    Perhaps the amount of parking should be defined in terms of occupant load instead of generalized use? It's difficult to acquire that information though, at least so that it is current. A tough one.

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