When San Diego State University junior Ben Rosenbaum answered the door of his College Area home one day last spring, the last person he expected to see was a police officer.
“It was me and two other guys, and we were just watching TV,” Rosenbaum said. “I don't think it was that loud. The door and the windows were all shut.”
The officer told them to keep it down and went on his way.
For Rosenbaum and his seven roommates, it was just another day living in a College Area mini-dorm, the epicenter of the fraught battle over where and how San Diego's student population will live. There is no legal definition for what constitutes a mini-dorm, but over the years it's come to be known as a single-dwelling house converted to include six or more bedrooms and, as far as neighbors are concerned, rowdy tenants. Mini-dorms typically have paved front lawns to accommodate more cars, garages that have been converted into living spaces and other living areas that have been split into bedrooms. Neighbors accuse students of leaving litter on their lawns and holding raucous parties deep into the night. Locals have for years complained loudly that these rentals cause their home values to plummet, traffic to increase and parking to be scarce.
But while San Diegans from Pacific Beach to the College Area to University Town Center have kvetched and moaned to the press about the problem, rarely is the student's-eye view considered.
From the outside, Rosenbaum's white-and-brown exterior house hardly looks different from neighboring homes. Inside, the walls are covered with rock-band and beer-pong posters, and the furniture consists of second-hand, mismatched couches. The TV show Entourage plays on the big-screen TV at high volume. Clearly, this is a house of college-age bachelors.
“We're just trying to look for what's affordable,” Devin Wold, one of Rosenbaum's roommates, said. “It's expensive to live by campus. If you ask a lot of people, it's cool living with eight people, but it's kind of tough. It's not like we're looking to make a mini-frat out of it.”
Finding an affordable place to live is the heart of the problem. SDSU simply doesn't have enough dorm rooms for all its students. The university has 25,000 full-time students and another 10,000 part-timers. The school plans to grow the student body by another 10,000 full-time students during the next 20 years. But, at the moment, there's simply not enough housing for all these students. To meet the demand, entrepreneurial landlords have been converting homes to multi-bedroom dwellings.
“We were shopping around for houses, like anyone else looking on craigslist. When it says six-bedroom house and there's eight of us looking together, there's only a certain number of options for a cheap price,” said Aaron Zazzera, an SDSU junior who lived with Rosenbaum and Wold for a year. “We moved in realizing, OK, it's a six-bedroom, but they made a makeshift [room] out of the garage.”
Another SDSU junior, Sherry Nep, lives with eight other girls—and she wouldn't have it any other way. “I feel safer,” Nep said. “I have all my best friends, there's always something to do, there's always someone home. This is a time in my life I'm never going to re-live, so why not live with all your friends and take advantage of being young?”
A 2004 San Diego Association of Governments survey found that roughly 5,000 of the residents of the College Area were between the ages of 18 and 24, while much of the remainder, 16,545, were families. The conflict between two groups in such different stages of life is inevitable.
“I think, for me, the scenario that is most frustrating, I feel like, to a certain extent, we were stereotyped when we moved in,” Zazzera said. “I can understand there are students with problems that are totally disrespectful. You just can't stereotype people just because they're students. I get that there are people like that, but in the world there are good people and bad people.”
Stereotypes are sometimes rooted in truth—many students do behave poorly in quiet family neighborhoods.“Someone told us that there was a group of girls that used to live here before us, and they always had crazy parties and left trash outside,” Rosenbaum said. “I think when we moved in, people kind of assumed it was going to be the same thing.”
Like any other group of college students, Rosenbaum and his roommates have the occasional party, but they try to keep things under control and clean up after themselves.
“We always get up in the morning and make sure there's no garbage in the yard,” Wold said. “That's one of things someone told us—is that they didn't like when there are beer cans out there, and we were, like: ‘Absolutely, no problem.'”
The roommates said they've tried to be responsible and respectful of their neighbors from the start. A few went door-to-door and introduced themselves and gave out their phone numbers in case problems arose.“They always just went directly to the cops, which is fine, I guess,” Wold said. “We'd rather just have them call us and say, ‘Hey, can you be quiet?'”
Wold added that sometimes the police were called when it wasn't necessary. Besides a few people watching TV too loudly, Wold said neighbors have called the police for other minor offences, like the time one of the students' cars was parked slightly over the driveway and into the gutter.
“Then the officer will be frustrated—he just got called to come tell us to move our car,” Wold said. “It's kind of like they look for certain things just to bring up. It's almost like they want to hassle you until you don't want to live there anymore.
“I understand it's their neighborhood,” he added. “They're raising families here. We're just kids looking for a place to live.”
Last year, Sherry Nep lived in Pacific Beach in an eight-bedroom house and planned to move into a nine-bedroom house somewhere else in P.B. But in July, the City Council began to focus its attention on new regulations to limit mini-dorms in P.B. and elsewhere. The moves scared off her landlord, and Nep and her roommates had to locate a new place. They found one, in the College Area.
The City Council has stepped up its campaign to reign in the proliferation of mini-dorms. In July, it tried to curb the symptoms of mini-dorms by limiting on-street parking, the widths of driveways and the number of bedrooms in single-family dwellings. At the same time, the San Diego Police Department began a pilot project to cite landlords and tenants when residents hold loud parties. The project has succeed so well, City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer said, that it will soon be expanded to Pacific Beach. And on Monday, Nov. 19, the City Council will consider a high-occupancy-zoning ordinance to create rules which will require landlords to obtain permits to rent houses to six or more people, and a rooming-house ordinance, which would prohibit landlords from issuing three or more separate leases in houses with three or more bedrooms.
“In Pacific Beach, we had a house that was three bedrooms attempting to expand to nine bedrooms, with two people per bedroom,” Faulconer said. “That's potentially 18 people in the middle of a normal residence area. That's why you have zoning laws.”
Faulconer said he wants to make sure the details of the new code make sense, but he supports the new rules “in concept.”
But none of these measures address the problem of where to put the students. When SDSU created its housing plan in the late 1970s, the goal was to build enough residence halls to handle the freshman class, or roughly 10 percent of the student population, said university architect Anthony Fulton.
Before 1980, San Diego, like many other California cities at the time, had a law regulating the number of unrelated adults living in a single-family home in residential zones, said Doug Case, who doubles as SDSU's coordinator for fraternity and sorority life and president of the College Area Community Council. However, the California Supreme Court ruled that such regulations are unconstitutional and struck them down. In the housing free-for-all that followed, Case said, the term “mini-dorm” was invented.
“That was at a time when SDSU was at its enrollment peak and it actually had more students than they have now, and they had about half as much on-campus housing,” he said. “During that time, people began buying up homes in the College Area and converting them into dormitories, where they rented them by the room.”
Two residence halls were completed in the '80s, and another was completed in 1990. That year, enrollment plummeted from a peak of 36,000 students down to 22,000—about 11,000 fewer students than today.
SDSU's updated master plan calls for the addition of roughly 3,000 on-campus beds by 2012. Fulton said the new housing has to be attractive to returning students and upperclassmen, so a lot of it will be on-campus apartments with a minimum amount of supervision.
“We're gonna have to do that kind of product because the majority of our housing will probably always be first-time freshmen, but that class is not necessarily going to get that much bigger,” Fulton said. “We might need 400 more units than we have right now to handle all freshmen and the rest of them will probably be upper classmen apartment units.
“We gotta satisfy that market,” Fulton said. “We gotta keep it in the university. Pricing it so that it is an affordable option for students will be difficult.”
SDSU is currently locked in a struggle with the city over how much the university should pay for infrastructure improvements near the new buildings. No permits will be issued until it's resolved.
But with no new dorms built for at least five years, Fulton worries about the supply-shrinking effects of the laws the City Council continues to create.
“Will it drive them to housing elsewhere?” he wondered. “And where? Don't know.” Staff writer Eric Wolff contributed to this story.