City continuing its efforts to rein in communal housing

For years, Russ Campbell, Hank Galmish and their neighbors worried about the single-family homes that had been, or were being, converted to cramped student rental housing on Lea Hill near Green River Community College.

Without permits or official oversight, the group told Auburn officials.

Along with the peril that such makeshift, tiny living spaces and their potential jerry-rigged electrical systems presented to the overabundance of students trying to squeeze into them, the group said, came piles of garbage, parking issues and noise.

The City's Planning and Community Development Committee, the Auburn Planning Commission and planners listened to what the group had to say, then for months worked on the wider issue of all communal housing within the City, emphasizing single-family residential neighborhoods near the college.

On Sept. 3, the Auburn City Council passed a communal living ordinance aimed at the problems Campbell and his neighbors had put under the microscope. Regulations that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

As Jeff Tate, assistant director of community development services for the City of Auburn, told the Planning and Community Development Committee on April 28, the City has to date received eight applications for communal residences — seven in the Lea Hill area near the college, one in the valley. The City has approved four of those, one was withdrawn, and three are under review. Two of the last three are headed to the City's Hearing Examiner for conditional use permit hearings in May. Auburn requires a CUP (conditional use permit) if a property is housing more than four unrelated people.

Other than a few minor issues, Campbell told committee members, he's "very pleased" with how things have gone.

"People will work within the rules, or they won't. There are two CUPs coming before the Hearing Examiner (in May), and I hope there'll be participation by the community. I kind of feel like what this community did, and later what the council passed, was kind based on our neighborhood. And I see it as very appropriate to challenge it at this point. This is the process."

Since Jan. 1, Tate said, City employees have been busy assembling a list of properties and compiling information to determine what, if any, communal activity may be going on at a given address.

City planners have turned to the following five primary sources of information to get what they need:

• Green River Community College: GRCC has provided the City with student ID numbers attached to addresses. Although all names remain anonymous, Tate said, the information allows Auburn to determine how many student ID numbers are linked to a property.

• Prior code compliance cases: properties that were already under City scrutiny in the past because of various complaints filed with the City.

• Permits issued in the past showing space converted and bedrooms added.

• Information from neighbors and residents who may have seen something going on and asked the City about a particular address.

• Advertisements for student housing about town, Craigslist, etc.

The ordinance set a Dec. 31, 2013 deadline for existing communal residences to become compliant with the new regulations, with no possibility for "grandfathering" in, pre-existing, unpermitted, student/rental housing. Also by that date, property owners were to have provided acceptable proof, such as a driver's' license, that they themselves were living at the student/rental housing address, possibly in a separate, owner-occupied unit.

Figuring out what's really going on in those houses isn't always an easy process, Tate said.

Campbell said some of his neighbors have watched students moving their belongings out of a house the day before a City inspection, only to move them back in the following day.

"People are wising up that there are regulations in effect," Campbell said.

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