Nov. 9 2015 04:32 PM

The College Area is drowning in multi-tenant residences

My husband and I bought our small-but-mighty home in the blandly named College Area in 2002. Newly married and in a fortunate position to buy thanks to a generous loan from my mother (that's an example of generational wealth unavailable to many people of color, but I digress), we opted to stay within our means.

We bought near San Diego State University because it was what we could afford. The neighborhood itself was meh, lacking the walkability that would come to define Normal Heights, South Park and Golden Hill. But we dug the diversity those communities lack. Generally speaking, we found our neighborhood to be a mostly pleasant, copacetic mix of families, students and elderly homeowners.

Mike and Bev, a professor and his wife, lived just to the west of us. He would sneak cigarettes while pacing up and down the sidewalk. Across the street lived Marybelle, a retired fashion and costume art professor who'd become bedridden in her old age, but whose home was an incredible treasure trove of her previous life. Off our backyard was Joel, a single guy living in the home his grandmother had left him. And around the corner lived our neighbor, Gordon, a gentle octogenarian whose daily walk right down the middle of our street took him to and from Marie Callender's where he'd go for a slice of pie like he used to do with his wife before she passed.

But one day, Gordon stopped walking. He, too, had died and his home was sold. The new owners converted the garage into a bedroom and paved over a portion of the front lawn to create more parking spaces. Marybelle died, too. Much to our relief, a family bought her house. But after two years, they moved out, chopped up some bedrooms, and (illegally) converted the garage before renting the property out to eight tenants. Joel sold his grandmother's place and moved to a condo. Now it's an annual revolving door for five tenants. And when Mike retired, he and Bev sold to investors who divided the living room and bedrooms, et voila! Sleeping capacity more than doubled.

And this is how, house-by-house, block-by-block, with the blessings of the city, the entitlement of SDSU and decades of poor planning by both, the single-family character of our community has been decimated.

In "'Mini-dorms' Prompt Outcry" in The San Diego Union-Tribune last week, San Diego Councilmember Marti Emerald said the College Area is reaching "a tipping point where the existing single-family character of the community is lost forever." Note to Marti: We have already tipped. Where this community was once accessible to young families and particularly for renters of lower socio-economic backgrounds, greed has shut them right out. Rent collected from a half-dozen students dwarfs that from any family.

This U-T article, a redux of the 2007 coverage revealing that SDSU's golf coach and his former assistant were slumlords of at least 12 properties, stated that there are 813 mini-dorms in the College Area today, with 135 of these horror shows built in the last three years. A map accompanying the online version of the story says it all.

Just to underscore the kind of civic oversight there is for such proliferation, I offer you 5033 63rd Street. Last year, investors leveled a single-family home two doors from where Gordon's now-trashed house stands. In its place, they erected a two-story monstrosity. Still under construction as I type, this apartment building (let's not play) comes complete with a paved backyard to accommodate nine off-street parking spots. That would be nine parking spots where a century-old oak tree once stood. City records show the permit for the mini-dorm has the word "mini-dorm" in the title of the approved application.


Meanwhile in IronicLand, the City's Development Services website states that mini-dorms are "a complex problem that cannot be solved by the city alone. It will also require cooperative participation by responsible landlords and tenants, local colleges and universities, and communities to protect the character of single dwelling unit neighborhoods, while still meeting the housing needs for all segments of the population."

And over in NIMBY World, city officials are consumed with how to regulate, fine and tax the menacing citizens in every neighborhood who dare to rent a room or a granny flat as a short-term rental.

The mind: She reels.

I can hear readers responding with the oh-so-helpful, "Well, what did you expect? It's the College Area." But living in proximity to college students isn't really the issue. That's actually okay, as most of them are respectful and down with being good neighbors. Sort of like most of the people who visit San Diego and choose to stay in short-term Airbnb rentals. Sure, some people are simply jerks (see mini-dorm proprietors); that's what happens when humans do their human-y thing.

The issue is an opaque permitting process that has thrown our RS-1-7 zoning under the party bus, and a perverse lack of both oversight and punishment of bad actors.

I think about this when I pass Gordon's house now, the two cars parked where his lawn used to be and another parked on what's left. I imagine he would be distressed about what's happened to his once-lovely home, in his once-quaint neighborhood.


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