It was Friday afternoon in Long Beach, a time traditionally reserved for leisure at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.
In the expansive living room of the old two-story structure on Anaheim Street, a group of California State University, Long Beach, students took turns tossing bottle caps into water glasses. Out on the front lawn, a young couple sat carving a Halloween pumpkin. And in the old-fashioned kitchen, a gaggle of Greeks leaned against the rickety cabinets talking excitedly of their weekend plans.
But high in an upstairs parlor, piled vertically against a back wall, a stack of empty cardboard boxes told a different story.
For the 13 SAEs who live here and the more than 60 who call it their house, the day of reckoning has almost arrived. They have been ordered to get out by Nov. 17. Less than a week later, a wrecking ball will raze the structure to make way for a 19-unit luxury apartment complex. And in two years of looking, fraternity officers say, they have been unable to find a place to move.
The reason: a city zoning ordinance that makes it virtually impossible for fraternities and sororities to relocate or start new houses in Long Beach. Their proposed solution: creation of a fraternity row near the campus where the Greek tradition can flourish.
"If we don't have a place, the (fraternity) could come to a standstill," said Eric Nickel, 21, the president of SAE, which has occupied the house on Anaheim since 1979.
Since the new zoning law was enacted seven years ago, three local fraternity chapters--two newly formed and a third that has been around for some time but recently lost its home--have been unable to find housing in the city. And the 14 other fraternities and sororities, authorized by their national offices to maintain houses in Long Beach, exist in a legal limbo that allows them to stay in these residences for as long as they can, but prevents them from ever moving.
The irony, according to Stuart Farber, the university's assistant vice president for student services, is that all this is happening when interest in campus Greek life is at an all-time high. The university's 26 recognized sororities and fraternities, with a combined active membership of about 1,600, he said, represent a 30% increase over the membership five years ago. "The students today find a strong need to meet friends and identify with others," Farber said.
SAE's problems date back almost to its purchase of the building, which previously served as an accountant's office and, before that, was a residence for 25 years.
'Bordering on Disgusting'
"It was bordering on disgusting" is how Bob Welch, 42, who lives on Granada Avenue about a block from the frat house, describes the early impact of the fraternity's presence on his neighborhood. "There was no thought that anyone else lived here. It was a real problem."
Eventually, he said, residents formed a homeowners association for the express purpose of complaining to both the city and the university regarding the parking problems, excess noise and "unacceptable" behavior.
As a result, in 1983 the fraternity was put on a year's probation, during which members were not allowed to hold social events at the house and were required to participate in a variety of service activities.
Welch said the neighborhood disturbances have greatly diminished since then. And Nap Harris, the university's assistant director of student affairs, said that SAE is now the most active fraternity on campus in its involvement in community service projects.
But solutions to the fraternity's financial problems proved more elusive. Two-and-a-half years ago, said Steve Berbower, an SAE alumnus and president of the fraternity's housing corporation, the organization was forced to sell its Anaheim Street house to a developer. "We simply took too big a bite and couldn't make the payments," Berbower said. "We were overextended."
So the fraternity signed a lease-back agreement with the new owner and began searching for another permanent home. They have been unable to find one, officers said, because of the zoning ordinance that took effect after the 1979 purchase.
Under the ordinance, fraternities and sororities wishing to establish houses in commercial or residential zones must first apply for conditional-use permits subject to approval by the city's Planning Commission and, ultimately, the City Council, said Dennis Eschen, the city's zoning officer. Previously, he said, communal living situations were allowed only in commercial zones but did not require conditional-use permits. As part of the application process for such permits, Eschen said, all residents within 300 feet of a proposed site are now notified and invited to express their views at a public hearing. And among the city's new requirements is that a proposed fraternity or sorority site have one parking space for each bed.