Berkeley Neighborhoods Council


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Mini-dorms, the Silent (up to now) Issue that Affects Most Residential Areas in Berkeley

When the great economic downturn of 2007 began and development funds were cut off by the banks, some developers found a way to maximize their dollars by purchasing a single family home with three or four bedrooms, adding more bedrooms (as many as 19 in one case) and renting to UC students.  The City simply issued over-the-counter building permits, so no one knew what was happening until construction began.  When asked why, City Staff responded that Berkeley's Zoning Ordinance does not limit how many bedrooms a housing unit can have.

These Mini-dorms were happening all over, from R-1 in the hills, to R-2 in the flats, to R-3 near the campus.  The unfortunate results of a Mini-dorm in a residential neighborhood were increased noise from late night parties, street parking congestion and greater amounts of garbage and trash in front of the Mini-dorm as well as in the neighborhood.

Because of these problems, neighbors vigorously appealed a Mini-dorm project at 2133 Parker Street to the City Council.  That project was stopped because so many people attended the council meeting and voiced their strong opinions.  The community recognized that Mini-dorm properties were popping up in many neighborhoods and they pushed to have a voice in establishing a process to control Mini-dorms through revisions to the Zoning Ordinance.  The results of this advocacy caused the City Council to refer the issue to the Planning Commission, asking the Commission to propose appropriate code changes regarding Mini-dorms.

Neighborhoods, determined to work together, formed the Southside Neighborhood Consortium, consisting of the Clark Kerr Neighbors, The Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association, LeConte Neighborhood Association, Stuart Street Neighbors, Willard Neighborhood Association, The Bateman Neighborhood, and Dwight Hillside Neighborhood Association.  The Planning Commission held several meetings focused on Mini-dorms and a public hearing on April 3, 2013.

The Consortium researched the issue of Mini-dorm proliferation in other college towns.  Of those cities studied, they determined that San Luis Obispo (SLO), California had the best ordinance to deal with the problems.  An ordinance for Berkeley was written based on the SLO ordinance and was presented to the Planning Commission.  However, The Planning Department Staff opposed sending this proposed ordinance to the City Council and instead presented their own recommendations to the Commission.

The Consortium reviewed the Staff recommendations and found them lacking in controlling the Mini-dorm problem in these main areas:

  1. Identifying the Zoning Districts Where New Rules Limiting Mini-dorms Would Apply
    Planning Staff sought to exclude R-3 zoning districts from new rules for Mini-dorms.  These areas while typically located closer to campus are also located near Ashby in the Bateman and Halcyon Court neighborhoods, along Parker between Telegraph and Etna Street, R-3, and are also mixed in with neighborhoods zoned R-1H and R-2 in the Northside.  The Consortium took the position that R-3 should absolutely be included in any proposed ordinance to protect not only the medium density land use goals of the district itself, but also to protect abutting low density neighborhoods.
  2. Per-unit Versus Per-parcel Basis That Would Trigger Public Review
    Staff sought to control the number of bedrooms on a per-unit basis.  However, the Consortium pointed out that most college and university communities deal with the issue on a per-parcel basis to control density.  It argued that a per-unit basis could result in significant increases in density that could go well beyond the density guidelines set in the Master Plan's Land Use Element without triggering a public review process.  They noted that keeping one-bedroom additions on a per-parcel basis would not impact the process for creating second, in-law units.
  3. Level of Discretion for Additional Bedrooms.
    Originally, the Consortium advocated a minimum square foot of lot area per bedroom standard to set an effective cap on the number of bedrooms a property could have (example:  a 5,000 square foot lot could have a maximum of five bedrooms at 900 square feet of lot area).  Staff resisted this concept but ultimately, the Consortium worked with the Planning Commission to set a five bedroom threshold on a parcel basis before the review process would be triggered.
  4. Modification of Ordinance 13.42.  Operational Controls of Mini-dorms
    The Planning Commission recommended that the City Council refer the reworking of language regarding operational controls of existing Mini-dorms back to the Commission using the language in the SLO Ordinance and changes prepared by the Consortium as a starting point.  Staff submitted a separate report with a recommendation to NOT have the item referred back to the Commission but to the City Manager instead.  Council approved the Planning Commission's recommendations (Consortium's recommendations) and referred back to the Planning Commission the Consortium's draft ordinance to control Mini-dorms.  The Planning Commission will review the draft ordinance and send it back to Council for approval.

More details of all of the city's discussion on the mini-dorm issue can be found on the city's website by going to the Council's July 16, 2013 agenda and reading Item 46.

The Berkeley Neighborhoods Council commends the Clark Kerr Neighbors, the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association, LeConte Neighborhood Association, Stuart Street Neighbors, Willard Neighborhood Association, The Bateman Neighborhood and Dwight Hillside Neighborhood Association for working together on this important issue affecting most residential areas in Berkeley.  We also salute the Planning Commission and City Council for their actions regarding the Mini-dorm issue to date.  Future BNC eNEWS issues will bring updates regarding Mini-dorms.