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Debate Over Single Renters to Be Raised at Public Hearing : Thousand Oaks: A city ordinance prohibiting rentals to more than three unrelated adults not in a single housekeeping unit is being challenged.

September 07, 1993|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his neatly pressed pants, button-down shirt and argyle socks, Rich Haynes doesn't look like much of a menace.

But to his neighbors, the 29-year-old salesman represents a real threat. As a single man renting a home with three adult friends, Haynes is considered a transient--an unstable element bouncing destructively through a family-oriented community.

Tonight, in a public hearing before the Thousand Oaks City Council, Haynes will learn whether he and his buddies can continue to rent their spacious, well-tended home on Lucero Street, near Cal Lutheran University.

A year-old city ordinance prohibits landlords from renting houses in single-family neighborhoods to more than three unrelated adults, unless the tenants can prove they form a "bona fide single housekeeping unit" linked by "a bond of social, economic and psychological commitments."

A landlord can apply for a special exemption, which has been granted to several applicants. But in this case, the neighbors have objected to any special permit and appealed the matter to the City Council.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that local governments cannot use such overcrowding laws to break up families, even if dozens of relatives pack into a single dwelling.

But to appease homeowners seeking homogeneous single-family neighborhoods, the council has approved a carefully worded ordinance to crack down on group homes or rooming houses occupied by unrelated adults.

Thousand Oaks officials say they want to respect non-traditional family structures, and thus have exempted "housekeeping units" not linked by blood ties. But city officials have interpreted the law narrowly, to block unrelated friends from sharing houses in all single-family neighborhoods.

Thus, although they depend on one another to help pay the rent, vacuum the living room and clean the toilets, Haynes and his fellow tenants do not qualify as a "bona fide housekeeping unit."

The distinction eludes Haynes, who has lived in the group home since February, enjoying the scenic mountains, back-yard pool and a full-sized kitchen, where he fine-tunes his favorite recipes.

"I didn't know these guys before I moved in, but now we're good friends," Haynes said. "We're not a family--we don't go to Disneyland together. But there is camaraderie. I think (the ordinance) is bogus. The city of Thousand Oaks really blows my mind."

The assistant city attorney, Bob Rogers, stands by the law, saying "the ordinance as it stands is defensible."

Although the law sailed through the City Council with unanimous approval, some officials say they have reconsidered. Mainly, they worry the law may be unconstitutional--and unenforceable.

"There's a very narrow line here," Councilman Frank Schillo said. "On one side, there's a reasonable law that preserves neighborhoods and keeps them residential. But when you cross that line, you're discriminating against a certain class of people. This ordinance is on one side of that line or the other--I don't yet know which."

Tonight's hearing may be a litmus test.

Haynes' landlord, Marilyn Longo, has filed a request for a special use permit to allow her to fill her two-story house with single tenants. After eight months of pleading her case before various administrative boards and commissions, she will finally face the City Council.

Neighbors' complaints that Longo's tenants generate excessive traffic and noise have faded since the first hearing this past winter. So have accusations that the tenants fail to keep the yard tidy. But many neighbors remain staunchly opposed to the concept of what they call a "rooming house" on their street.

"The integrity of the neighborhood will get eroded," neighbor Ivan Potts said. "If you have boarding houses, they will be filled by students. . . and by young singles who are not connected with one another and the neighborhood will deteriorate."

Fiercely protective of their family-style community, residents insist they're not opposed to renters in general--just to unconnected singles, who may not care about local issues or understand the need to bolster property values.

"I don't care if you have four people or 40, you have to have that social, economic and psychological bond," said Debra Handlos, who has lived next door to Longo's house for 15 years and has watched dozens of tenants move in and out.

"If you don't have those bonds, you're creating an unstable and unsafe environment," she said.

Scores of Thousand Oaks residents echoed those views at public hearings before the ordinance was approved. Again and again, they called on the city to step in and enforce the literal meaning of "single-family zoning."

Since the ordinance passed, the city has registered 250 complaints about overcrowded rental homes, according to code enforcement chief Don LaVoie.

About 70% of those cases have been resolved, as landlords have backed down or appealed for special use permits. The remainder of the cases are being processed, LaVoie said.

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