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Irvine tightens restrictions on boarding houses, despite opposition from UCI students

Irvine tightens restrictions on boarding houses, despite opposition from UCI students
According to UC Irvine, 13,968 students are housed on campus and an additional 2,400 live in the adjacent University Town Center. (File Photo / AP)

Despite opposition from UC Irvine student leaders who believe it will make finding housing more difficult for economically disadvantaged students, the Irvine City Council on Tuesday night approved tighter restrictions on boarding houses and short-term rentals.

The zoning ordinance amendment, approved 4-1 with Councilwoman Melissa Fox dissenting, was in response to homeowners’ long-standing grievances about late-night parties, trash and parking shortages.

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Councilman Anthony Kuo said he was sympathetic to students who need roommates to afford a place to live, saying he and a group of friends rented rooms while they attended college.

But he said the City Council must respond to residents’ complaints about empty alcohol bottles, crowded street parking and garbage cans left on the curb for days after trash is collected.

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“I hate to throw them under the bus, because things have improved significantly. But the root problem is UCI wants to admit more and more students, and that’s a great thing, but they don’t plan for what happens afterward,” Kuo said. “They’re really, really good at educating students. They’re really not good at land use and planning and community building.”

Annie Le, president of the Associated Students of UC Irvine, shared with the council the results of a recent survey of 2,000 students who reported living in overcrowded conditions in which more than two students sleep in a room and/or one or more students sleep in common living areas.

“I think a lot of students are upset by this decision,” Le said. “Because they’re elected representatives of Irvine, they should be working with UCI and not playing the blame game.”

Irvine code enforcement staff members said they are struggling to police boarding houses and short-term rentals, partly because before filing lawsuits, they need to obtain copies of lease agreements to establish that operators are leasing on a per-room basis. Those arrangements are not allowed in Irvine.

Some landlords use a loophole of putting all the tenants on a single lease. To close that loophole, City Attorney Jeffrey Melching proposed updating the zoning code to require that households be a “single housekeeping unit.”

Under that definition, a household must consist of residents sharing living expenses, chores, meals and/or social, economic and psychological commitments. If the city finds a household doesn’t fit those requirements, the property owner would be required to apply for a conditional use permit to operate a boarding house.

Melching said he proposed that language because the California Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Santa Barbara, which used similar wording to defend its regulation of boarding houses.

But Fox voted against the proposed amendment, saying it would violate residents’ privacy.

“I’m extremely concerned about the language in this ordinance,” she said. “For example, why would you put a city in the position of determining whether or not individuals living under one roof share expenses or chores?”

At the request of Mayor Pro Tem Christina Shea, the City Council agreed to establish a housing committee to include the mayor, a council member, the Irvine Co., Five Point Communities and leaders from UC Irvine. The goal would be to hash out a long-term plan for accommodating future student housing needs.

UCI spokesman Tom Vasich said 13,968 students are currently housed on campus and an additional 2,400 live in the adjacent University Town Center. This fall, UCI will add 500 beds for first- and second-year students at Middle Earth towers and 1,400 at Plaza Verde.

“UCI is committed to providing under-market, on-campus housing opportunities for our students,” he said. “In fact, we are one of four UC campuses to house 40% or more of its student population on campus.”

Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.

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