The City of Irvine is cracking down on college students who board up with multiple roommates to afford steep rent prices, to the support of city homeowners concerned with neighborhood character and objection of vocal college students who argue this will force many of them into homelessness.

City code enforcers say they were previously limited in their ability to find cases of boarding housing — where multiple tenants live in a dwelling under separate leases, a practice illegal in Irvine and only permitted by a local zoning ordinance under certain circumstances. Code enforcement officials argued efforts to enforce the ordinance were limited because they had to secure copies of all the separate leases.

There was also a loophole in the zoning ordinance where landlords could put multiple tenants on a single lease agreement to comply with it.

“What you do in your house, I don’t care … If you’re 12 college kids living in a 2-bedroom condo — if that’s what works for you, that’s what works for you,” said Councilman Anthony Kuo during the meeting.

“But when your neighbors are calling and upset about the parking; when we’re driving by and there’s no landscaping, and when the trash cans are out on a Friday and trash day was Tuesday, that’s when I care,” Kuo said, citing stories of late night partying and parking problems recounted at the meeting by around seven people who identified themselves as Irvine homeowners.

City Council members voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Melissa Fox dissenting last week, March 12, to add language to the city ordinance banning boarding housing in Irvine, to only allow multiple tenants to live together under one lease if they qualify as a “single housekeeping unit,” where all the tenants share living expenses or are related to each other either through blood, marriage, or the functional equivalent of a family where tenants have “psychological commitments” to each other.

The “single housekeeping unit” concept will allow Code Enforcement staff to pursue violations quicker, according to city staff, without the obstacle of requiring landlords to produce lease documents.

The city will also crack down on short term rental setups, made easy with online platforms like Airbnb, which are also illegal in the city.

The Council’s move against those types of housing operations was less controversial at the meeting and was even supported by some of those who objected to the council’s move against boarding housing.

To enforce against the short term rental setups, the council members’ vote included paying $65,000 to a company called Host Compliance to monitor the internet for potentially illegal listings in the city, without doing actual enforcement work.

“Well, I do that all the time. ($65,000) seems like a lot just to do that,” said Fox before her “No” vote.

College students at the University of California, Irvine say boarding housing is one of the only affordable ways to attend school for students who live far from home.

Around 27 people, many of them UC Irvine students, spoke in opposition to the Council’s move.

“Who actually wants to live in a garage or living room or kitchen?” said UC Irvine student Jeanne Le to the Council. “No one wants to share a room with two or three other people. This is something we have to do. You aren’t directly saying this, but this is an attack on students.”

There’s also a question of whether the city’s move violates federal housing law.

“Discrimination can be shown without an intent to discriminate if the effect of the law is that groups of particular nationalities are targeted,” said Kenneth Stahl, a land use and real estate law professor at Chapman University, in an email.

Stahl added “Boarding house ordinances like this one may violate the Fair Housing Act”— which prohibits from enforcing housing rules on the basis of race, familial status and other factors — “if they are applied in such a way as to disproportionately affect Latinos or other groups on the basis of race or nationality.”

“Such a disproportionate impact may be likely if many boarding house tenants are racial or national-origin minorities, as is often the case in high-cost cities.”

Fox took issue with the city determining whether or not tenants living under one lease meet the new requirements of the city ordinance, requirements that may depend on details of tenants’ private lives.

“Why would you put a city in the position of determining whether or not individuals living under one roof share expenses or chores? ‘Who’s doing the dishes in your house,’ what kind of a question is that?” said Fox before the vote. “How do we determine what constitutes a family unit based on a relationship?”

City Attorney Jeffrey Melching said during the meeting the Council’s move complies with federal housing law in that those provisions of the Fair Housing Act prohibiting discrimination based on familial status “don’t apply in circumstances when a local agency is advancing a legitimate government interest,” in this case, “preserving the character of a residential neighborhood.”

Melching didn’t mention the ordinance possibly affecting people and families of color disproportionately, but said the “single housekeeping unit” concept of the amended city ordinance is one that’s endorsed by the California Supreme Court, even amid its potential privacy implications.

“We have actually attempted to hue very closely to the law as it exists to ensure that we are compliant.”

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