A trend in converting houses into hostels and hacker spaces has some residents in Palo Alto's neighborhoods crying foul.
The homes, which are being rented out on online marketplaces such as Airbnb.com, take in as many as 16 people at a time, some in bunk-bed settings, for rentals that can range from a day to months.
City officials say they are somewhat hampered by laws that do not allow them to limit the number of non-related persons living in a single-family home. But the living arrangements may violate the city ordinance that governs single-family homes. Specifically, rentals for fewer than 30 days or for business purposes by workers who don't live in the home are not permitted.
Residents turned out to a College Terrace Residents Association meeting earlier this month to raise the issue, which they said amounts to young entrepreneurs setting up a business in their neighborhood.
Some residents told the College Terrace board that the strangers smoke cigarettes and talk on cellphones on the street at night to avoid disturbing housemates, but that has made the residents' children feel afraid to play outside. Other residents voiced worries about added traffic and higher water use.
Renters of these spaces, who are reportedly visiting teachers, scholars, students and interns, said the shared housing is the only way they can afford to live in Palo Alto.
The College Terrace residents aren't alone in their concerns. All over Palo Alto, homes are being rented out on daily and weekly bases, despite the city's ordinance that requires a 30-day minimum stay. Luxury homes in Crescent Park and downtown, cottages in College Terrace and Barron Park, and Eichlers in Charleston Meadows are all up for rent at prices ranging from $30 for a bunk bed or pull-out couch to more than $2,000 a night for a large house, according to their online ads.
The potential conversion of a home into a boarding house caused alarm in Barron Park in 2014 after an applicant sought to build a two-story home with eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. Public outcry caused the applicant to withdraw his plans, and he submitted a new proposal in March for a 5,539-square-foot, single-story home, which includes a 2,863-square-foot basement. This second proposal adds 1,000 square feet to the original plan, neighborhood watchdogs noted, but city officials said they can't restrict the number of bedrooms or bathrooms in a home, and single-story homes don't require a public review.
A search of Airbnb on Wednesday found more than 300 rentals in Palo Alto. Of those, 101 were for entire homes, 175 were for private rooms in a home and 31 for shared, dormitory or bunk-bed-style rooms.
The shared-room rentals are clearly geared toward young techies, with listings offering games, camaraderie, lightning-fast Internet access and an inexpensive place to land. They have names like Hacker House, International Home for Startups and Hacker's Hostel.
"Amazing bunk bed in Hacker Kingdom," one post for a rental in the Ventura neighborhood advertised. "We have Internet. We got board games. We currently don't have a shower unless you don't mind showering in an ultra clean sink."
Photos show a hallway of closet-like rooms, each containing two metal bunk beds against a brightly painted cinderblock wall. That setup will cost $30 per night with a $5 cleaning fee.
For a short-term rental, reviewers said, it was the perfect place for guys who need a place to crash.
Two homes on Princeton Street near College Avenue that were advertised on SUpost, Stanford University's online marketplace, show wooden bunk beds in a tightly configured space.
"We are looking for quiet, responsible housemates to live together with us in our lovely and very large house. Each room is shared between two, four or six people with separate rooms for males and females. Up to 16 people will be living in the house," the ad notes.
But young entrepreneurs offering congenial, collaborative living spaces aren't the only ones getting on the rental bandwagon.
"Super Bowl 2016," a home on Homer Avenue, is attempting to cash in on the demand when the football championship is hosted in the Bay Area. The entire house is for rent at $2,000 a night, with six beds and space for eight guests, according to its Airbnb advertisement.
Staying for just a few days is clearly the aim for some renters. One Midtown house that accommodates 10 people was recently used for a company off-site meeting, according to a reviewer on Airbnb.
While home-owning entrepreneurs didn't respond to requests for interviews prior to this newspaper's press time, renters at some of the shared housing said the setups are essential in exorbitantly pricey Palo Alto.
"It's very expensive -- very expensive to stay here. I couldn't believe the prices here. Even Stanford is expensive. Most people have to share or go farther away," said Oscar Rueda, a scientist visiting Stanford University for two months from Cambridge University on a travel grant. Rueda is living in part of a rented cottage behind Hacker House, a communal-living space in Barron Park.
On Wednesday evening, students came and went noiselessly on bicycles and on foot. Hilary Griffin, who rents a large home across the street from Hacker House, said the inhabitants have been quiet.
But while looking for a home to rent, she came across a shared house in Old Palo Alto on Waverley Street near the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs' house, she said. Inside the Tudor-style home, "There were 16 people living there. It looked just like a frat house. ... There were dishes in the sink that must have been four days old. They were guys working from Google. The poor Realtor was running around trying to clean up, picking up towels off the floor," she said.
The issue has already come to the attention of the Palo Alto City Council, which in March rejected regulating Airbnb rentals due to a lack of urgency of the problem. City staff had only received seven complaints about the issue last year, two of which had been deemed invalid. The council directed staff to monitor the situation and agreed to bring it back for discussion next year.
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said that the city cannot legally regulate the number of people who live in a household.
"We can, however, regulate the number of units (defined by the number of kitchens), and we can regulate short-term rentals," she said in an email.
A short-term rental would be one that is less than 30 days, which would constitute transient occupancy and not residential use, she said. The city does investigate complaints when properties are being rented out on a short-term basis to multiple persons, she said.
City code also does not limit the number of bedrooms or bathrooms that can be constructed within a residence. It regulates the overall size and use as a residence, rather than as a hotel, she said.
Palo Alto Municipal Code 2.33.010 defines a hotel as any structure or portion of a structure that is occupied or intended for occupancy by transients for dwelling, lodging or sleeping. It includes any hotel, inn, tourist home or house, motel, studio hotel, bachelor hotel, lodging house, morning house, apartment house, dormitory public or private club, mobile home or house trailer in a fixed location.