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KCBX Two-Way: The legality of living 'off lease' in San Luis Obispo

Conner Frost/Mustang News
An old city ordinance is prompting many college students to live "illegally" in rented homes.

"A 30-year-old San Luis Obispo city law is causing Cal Poly students to live off lease and it may be illegal."That's the headline of a recent article by Cal Poly student media outlet Mustang News. Student reporter Ashley Ladin stopped by the KCBX studios to discuss her story about the law, how students navigate it and what is—or isn’t being done—to change it.

LADIN: Living off lease is a pretty common situation for a lot of Cal Poly students and students in general. It's basically to cut down cost of rent. Students live in homes without landlords knowing, and some of those students there are on [the lease], but then if there's an occupancy limit, they just add more students secretly.

PRATT: How did you find this story? You mentioned off lease being sort of an open secret on campus. Do landlords know about it?

LADIN: A lot of students, I would say probably the majority of students living in homes in SLO, live with some students off lease. But I don't think a lot of students knew about the ordinance, and I wasn't really familiar with it. But an anonymous source actually reached out to me and just said I should look into it, and after that it was really clear that city officials and everyone kind of knew about this and knew that the legality was questionable.

PRATT: Tell us about this ordinance in SLO, what's going on? How does San Luis Obispo do things?

LADIN: This is a 30-year-old ordinance and it limits the number of adult tenants in a typical dwelling or a typical home to five, which is a lot more restrictive than California occupancy laws. And if you want to rent to more than five adult tenants in a single home you have to get this permit, which pretty much no one gets, because there is no benefit for landlords to get this permit. You have to pay for it, and it's hard to apply for.

PRATT: How can this be legal in SLO, but not in California?

LADIN: When first passed it was legal. It was passed in 1989, but in 1992 there was a court case which basically set precedent in California that city law can't be more restrictive than state law, and actually dealt with occupancy as well. And then [for the city], the only caveat is that if you [have solid] findings, because of your climate or city environment, that you need this more restrictive law, then it can be legal. But SLO hasn't done that yet, since that 1992 case.

PRATT: So what does this look like for students living off lease? I'm imagining a bunch of students crammed into a house—you mentioned some students having to hide from their landlord—what are some of the scenes that you saw?

LADIN: [There are] different degrees of off lease living. For my article, I really wanted to focus on how, in a lot these situations, it can be comfortable for these students. They should be able to live there legally, but they just can't and they have to inconveniently hide all their stuff, but there is space for them. Then, there [are] some that are just crammed and that wouldn't be legal in California either, if you have like 12 students in a really small house. But some of these, with just six or seven students, they're just being sneaky. One of the people I interviewed in the article, he has to hide his mattress, which is pretty common. They're throwing boxes over it to make it look like a random storage space or putting it in the garage or just standing it upright. Some people even break down their beds if they have wire bed frames that can condense. Just anything, if their landlord comes to check, to hide their existence.

PRATT: And you spoke with a lawyer for this story, what did he say?

LADIN: I spoke with [attorney] John Fricks and he basically just [said if the city's ordinance] was challenged, he has pretty good evidence to believe it would be found illegal in the city. But the problem is, it's really doubtful that anyone will challenge it.

PRATT: That's my next question. Do we see a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo's future?

LADIN: I would really doubt anyone would bring this to the city because right now, the landlords are already getting their money. I mean students get [housing], maybe through illegal means, through these off lease living situations, but [landlords are] still getting the money and landlords don't want to go through the legal fees. What purpose would that serve them? And students aren't really going to want to take time out of their schedule to challenge the city on this ordinance.

PRATT: So you're saying landlords know about this, and just turning a blind eye to it?

LADIN: I spoke to a few landlords and they all [thought] that the ordinance was kind of questionable. But they're going to follow it because they don't want to have violation fees from the city if they're found out.

PRATT: Are there any other communities that have this sort of off lease situations?

LADIN: I would assume that a lot of college towns have students living off lease just because, no matter what the rent is, if you can add more people to split it, it will be cheaper. But SLO definitely has a very restrictive occupancy ordinance for homes, which I think increases the amount of students and just people living off lease.

PRATT: You spoke with someone highly involved in the city, [San Luis Obispo mayor] Heidi Harmon. What did she say?

LADIN: Mayor Harmon calls this ordinance more of a guidepost, and one of the big things she mentioned and kind of stressed when I spoke to her, was that she didn't think it caused any harm. And I think that's  the city's stance on it—maybe it's not legal, but what harm does it do? And I really wanted my article to show, this was put in place 30 years ago, and maybe it doesn't seem like a big deal, but for some of these students, it affects them every day in their own homes.”

PRATT: And this goes to my last question. We know that San Luis Obispo is an expensive place to live and we've even heard stories about students living in their cars. What do you think can be done or is being done to help make it easier on students to get a roof over their head in San Luis Obispo?

LADIN: That's hard. I don't think anything very significant is happening … you can try different homes sharing situations and there are illegal ways to try to cut costs. But I think taking down this ordinance would be a good start. I just don't know if the city will do it.

PRATT: Ashley Ladin, reporter at Cal Poly media outlet Mustang News. You can read her articles online at mustangnews.net.

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