It was mid-November 1989, and San Luis Obispo City Council members were hearing the same complaints they always heard. In a classic town-and-gown battle, locals were concerned about the increasing number of Cal Poly students, and how those students went on to become neighbors of the obnoxious, loud sort. To appease citizens and better control the “nuisance impacts” from multiple students living in one house, the council passed an occupancy ordinance restricting the maximum number of tenants in typical homes to five adults. The fewer students in a house, the less burdening they are to neighbors. Problem solved.

Thirty years later, anthropology senior Stevie Page has to hide his mattress and leave the house when his landlord comes to visit. Page lives with five other students in a house close to campus, but because of the 1989 ordinance, he cannot live there legally.

“Living off the lease” refers to living with legal tenants of a dwelling without signing a lease or notifying the landlord. It is a popular option for students like Page, and it is easy to see why: one or two additional tenants in a dwelling means lower rents for all residents.

As Page points out, affording rent with just five tenants is a difficult feat in San Luis Obispo.

“I was hesitant to go off-lease, but the price difference is pretty crazy,” Page said. “I’m only paying $450 a month — in [San Luis Obispo], it’s hard to find something under $700.”

“I was hesitant to go off-lease, but the price difference is pretty crazy”

While living off the lease means lower costs, it also brings unwanted stress for students. Agricultural business senior Sam Senet lived off-lease her entire junior year and the beginning of her senior year but moved into legal housing in Winter 2019.

“When you’re off-lease, your roommates are basically your landlords and any trouble you have, you have to go through them to get it done,” Senet said. “It was too stressful. I wouldn’t do it again.”

Connor Frost | Mustang News

The question is: do Page, Senet and the many other Cal Poly students who live off-lease need to put up with the complications of secret residency to cut housing costs between six or more people? San Luis Obispo’s ordinance says yes, but California occupancy laws say otherwise.

Local landlords, who students must typically outsmart and avoid while living off-lease, follow San Luis Obispo’s occupancy ordinance — which is much stricter than state occupancy limits. California adopted the federal Uniform Housing Code with slight alterations and generally uses a “two-plus-one” rule for occupancy. A dwelling can have two people per bedroom, plus one additional person in a living space.

Local landlords, who students must typically outsmart and avoid while living off-lease, follow San Luis Obispo’s occupancy ordinance — which is much stricter than state occupancy limits.

While San Luis Obispo has a strict limit on maximum adult tenants, California occupancy limits are based on the amount of space in a dwelling. If Cal Poly was located in a different city in California that followed the state’s set occupancy limit, some students currently living off-lease would be able to stay in their homes as legal tenants.

Is SLO allowed to have more restrictive occupancy limits than the state? According to John W. Fricks, a 1987 Cal Poly alumnus who specializes in real estate law and is a partner at local law firm Ogden & Fricks LLP, the answer is unclear. In what he refers to as “a push-pull battle between cities and the state,” California wants higher occupancy limits to create more affordable housing, but San Luis Obispo and other cities want lower occupancy limits to avoid high-density issues like increased traffic and noise.

“I’ve looked at occupancy ordinances in several different areas, and I would think San Luis Obispo is in the top 10 percent for most restrictive of occupancy,” Fricks said. “It certainly impacts students. Students may be more willing to live in a more dense environment with more people.”

Fricks said he thinks the city’s occupancy ordinance is ripe for legal challenge. He cited a decision made by a California appellate court in 1992 that ruled city law cannot be more restrictive than state law — unless a city finds, with actual facts, that more restrictive policies are “necessary because of local climatic, geological or topographical conditions.” San Luis Obispo would need to convincingly prove its five-person occupancy rule is necessary under one of these categories for the ordinance to be legal.

Just as living off the lease is an open secret in the campus community, the questionable legality of the occupancy ordinance seems to be known by the city council. San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon said that while the ordinance “is definitely still on the books,” the ability to enforce it is weak and it can be seen as more of a “guidepost.”

“The intention is to try to make sure there is an equitable situation in context of neighborhoods. Many students in a single home can put undue burden on neighbors for parking and noise,” Harmon said. “I don’t think it causes harm at all — maybe just in the way that some people don’t like the rules.”

Property owners can apply for High Occupancy Use permits through the city to legally rent to more than five adult tenants without breaking city code, but the process is long and has little, if any, financial benefit for owners. In fact, since 1990, the city has reviewed only 23 High Occupancy Use permit applications. Out of the 23 applications, only eight permits were approved — and seven of those permits have since expired.

This means students who live in a home with more than five adults in San Luis Obispo either have some tenants living off the lease, live on lease because their landlord is not following city law, live in a greek house that has different city occupancy limits or live in the one remaining house that has a High Occupancy Use permit.

Susie Brans, a local realtor and landlord who helps manage more than 100 properties in the city, said she thinks a handful of her own listings could easily accommodate more than five tenants.

“I think [the ordinance] does affect the housing in San Luis [Obispo] — in some cases it hurts with students, and in some cases it helps limit the density in larger homes closer to campus,” Brans said. “But if you have a house that can easily accommodate six, it’s difficult to understand the rule.”

“But if you have a house that can easily accommodate six, it’s difficult to understand the rule”

Brans follows the ordinance, as most San Luis Obispo landlords do, to avoid potential code-violation fees. However, it is still likely that in some of the 100-plus properties she helps manage, there are off-lease residents like Page, whose mattresses and existences are kept hidden from her. Many are just students trying to make do in San Luis Obispo, in a house they might be able to legally live in anywhere else in the state.

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