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Riled Lea Hill residents say no to seven unrelated people in communal housing

Hank Galmish - Reporter file photo
Hank Galmish
— image credit: Reporter file photo

Auburn planners say Lea Hill residents Shao Xia Zhu and her husband, Gary Kiefer, should be permitted to lodge up to seven unrelated people in each of the two single-family homes they own in the Rainier Ridge subdivision just north of Green River Community College.

But neighbors say anything more than four unrelated people — here, college students — in a communal housing situation would run contrary to what they worked with City leaders for months to achieve, and what City leaders signed off on when they approved the ordinance last September.

At the Zhu-Kiefer hearings at Auburn City Hall on May 28, a room full of riled residents rated the City a fail on its handing of the first applications that have ever been subject to the new rules.

"We have worked for two, three years with the City," said Hank Galmish, an English teacher at GRCC for 25 years, and a resident of Rainier Ridge, who lives "kiddy-corner, directly across the street from one of the homes. We wanted something reasonable. Reasonable was four residents in a house. As soon as we get that passed — and it took a lot of work — we get these exceptions."

The new section of the City code, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2014, outright permits single-family homes to operate as communal housing, but only if such communal residences have no more than four unrelated occupants. A home with more than four unrelated persons, however, has to obtain a conditional use permit (CUP) to operate, which requires the City hearing examiner's approval.

Hearing Examiner Phil Olbrechts releases his decision June 10. The Zhu-Kiefer-owned homes are at 12428 SE 318th Way and 12728 SE 318th Way.

Neighbors who pushed for the new regulations cited the dangers that such makeshift, tiny, non-permitted living spaces and their potential jerry-rigged electrical systems presented to the overabundance of students trying to squeeze into them. They also cited the detrimental effects of piles of garbage, parking issues, rampant jaywalking, reckless driving and noise on the value of their own properties.

City Planner Gary Yao, who worked on the applications and has recommended approval, said that the City wasn't allowed by law to prejudge the behavior of any persons who might occupy the home, including students.

Yao noted that the new regulations require that any residence operating as communal housing have one parking space per car-owning occupant, provide adequate garbage and recycling services and schedules, submit to annual building inspections, and be consistent with the International Building Code. When there are more than four unrelated persons living inside, in addition to requiring the CUP, each applicant must demonstrate that there is adequate living space, have a designated property manager available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, have approved noise mitigation methods and demonstrate no adverse impacts to the surrounding community. The report recommends at least 50 square feet of living space per occupant.

"The City did not find that the communal residences would be detrimental to the neighborhood," Yao concluded, "and because of that, nor are they economically detrimental to individual property owners."

Galmish, taking furious exception to Yao's comments, said he wants to sell his home, but the yellow sign announcing the application for communal housing for seven people has frightened prospective buyers away. At the same time, he predicted City approval of the Zhu-Kiefer applications would open the floodgate to people looking to buy up homes on Lea Hill and convert them into crowded student communal housing.

"Two weeks ago, sitting in my office at GRCC, in comes a woman, and she says, 'I hear you're selling your house. I'll give you cash, Don't worry about fixing up a bit of it. I'll give you cash because I can rent to students.' I wouldn't do that to my neighbors. ... I don't think Mr. Yao would like that, either," Galmish said. "It's real easy to sit in an office, read a bunch of regulations, and say it doesn't damage the neighborhood because you don't live there.

"There's a waiting list of people wanting to buy up houses in the neighborhood. If you grant this one, you are going to have a tidal wave. I'm not going to be living there, but I feel sorry for the people who are," Galmish said. "The City just irritates me. You hide behind legalese, you say 'no detriment to the neighborhood. We can't deal with this. This isn't our concern. That's for politicians.' Sorry I'm angry, but I am angry."

"This is not the way to keep a single-family neighborhood going," said Robert Lutz a neighbor and a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer. "We have hopes of younger families moving in, These are starter-level homes in most cases by today's standards. People come in and they want to raise their kids in a nice, quiet environment. They don't want people drag racing between speed bumps. We don't need that kind of thing. I hope that the powers that be will step back and consider their own neighborhood, not just what they see on paper here,"

Judy Craig, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, said she once housed students but gave up the program because students disobeyed the rules, for example, by coming in late and drunk.

"It was too hard to handle these children," Craig said. "If four works out for people, I think that's fine. But seven, I think, is way too many, living all by themselves in a home with no guardianship at all."

Rainier Ridge resident Russ Campbell said his research had revealed that both of the houses take in annual receipts of anywhere between $63,000 and $84,000.

"It's a huge business. ... What we have experienced is that these businesses have been flying under the radar for a long time. It wasn't until I and a couple of other people went to the City to get things actually changed, that caused these businesses to have to come out in the open. No one recognized her business. We recognized it was happening and wanted it regulated. ... When we allow this to happen, the floodgates will open, and if these two dominoes fall, there will be lots of them," Campbell said.

"We worked with the City an entire year. I sat at tables where councilmembers said, 'How many, three, four, five? How many single adults should be allowed to live in a home.' They debated it and came up with four. The very first thing that comes up, we have someone applying to put in seven. It wasn't until last Friday I found out there was going to be a report recommending this. Recommending it on 50-square-feet of living space. That's unbelievable," Campbell said.

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