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Council Considers Trading Funds for Occupancy Limits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a bid to force an apartment complex owner to crack down on alleged overcrowding, the Thousand Oaks City Council tonight will consider granting the owner $4,500 in redevelopment funds on the condition that he guarantee occupancy limits--a deal that some critics find inappropriate.

The grant would cover half the cost of fencing the balconies at 850 Warwick Ave., a 50-unit apartment complex that has generated complaints from neighbors about overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, council members said.

Owner Ashok Sharma and complex manager Lee Knight insist that each of the 1,000-square-foot units houses no more than four adults, two per bedroom.

“We pay for water, hot and cold--if we let 10, 15 people live in each apartment, like we’ve been accused of, we’d have to pay for their water,” Knight said.

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But Councilwoman Elois Zeanah said she had received “countless complaints about roach infestation, people using balconies as room additions, crime and overcrowding.”

“We’re not singling him out unfairly,” Councilman Frank Schillo said. “In this city, there is overcrowding in apartments, and the ones on Warwick are the biggest offenders. If you’re going to single anyone out, it should be them.”

With no codes restricting apartment occupancy, Thousand Oaks has little recourse when neighbors protest, as they have about Warwick Apartments. The city’s overcrowding ordinance affects only single-family houses.

State law offers no support either, as it bases maximum occupancy on an apartment’s total square footage, including kitchen and closets. California code would allow up to 10 people in a 1,000-square-foot unit, said Barry Branagan, director of Thousand Oaks’ building and safety department.

Under the terms of the grant, the city could sue Sharma for breach of contract if officials find more than four adults living in a single unit, said Nancy Kierstyn Schreiner, the Thousand Oaks code enforcer.

“We’ll keep his feet to the fire from that standpoint,” Schillo said, voicing his approval of the contract.

Even with the contract in place, the city may have a tough time proving overcrowding. Code enforcers generally respond only to specific complaints, and they must give a tenant 24 hours notice before inspecting the premises--potentially enough time to hide evidence of unregistered residents.

Still, Schillo said, “it’s a start. It sends a message that we’re serious about overcrowding.”

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But at least two of his colleagues weren’t so sure.

Councilwomen Jaime Zukowski and Zeanah both said it was inappropriate for the city to extract promises from an individual landlord by dangling grant money in front of him.

“I don’t think we should be striking deals,” Zukowski said.

The notion that redevelopment funds, which are earmarked to increase or enhance the supply of affordable housing, might be used for cosmetic improvements on apartments that rent for $895 a month also troubled the councilwomen.

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“Those are market-rate apartments,” Zeanah said. “I think it’s a misuse of redevelopment agency funds.”

But boosters of the deal countered that the money would be well spent. New 42-inch-high wooden fences around each balcony, painted beige with brown trim to match the stucco walls, will look a lot better than the old metal railings, they said.

“We’re getting a lot of bang for the buck here,” said Olav Hassel, the city’s housing services manager. He added that the Warwick Apartments fall under the state’s definition of “affordable” because most tenants spend no more than 30% of their gross income on the rent.

A blue T-shirt hung over a newly refurbished balcony in the complex Monday afternoon, and bicycle handles, plants and an iron peeked above the chocolate-colored railings. But clutter was far more visible on the balconies that had not yet been enclosed, as bulging trash bags leaned against the metal slats and mismatched chairs, laundry detergent and sports equipment littered the floors.

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“The money will impact the outside, so the balconies won’t look so junky,” Schillo said in defense of the grant. “We’re in a win-win situation.”

But in addition to blocking unsightly bric-a-brac, the balcony fences could shield makeshift beds from sight--a fact that Zeanah worries will “assist, rather than resist, overcrowding.”

With the balcony improvements half completed and more than $4,000 in construction costs already paid, the Warwick Apartments manager said he’s eager to get the city’s grant. Because he already requires tenants to sign agreements limiting occupancy to two adults per bedroom, he said, the grant contract will require nothing new of him.

“There is no overcrowding in my building,” Knight said. “I know the city doesn’t want overcrowding so they put that in (the contract).”

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