The Berkeley City Council roundly rebuffed a proposed settlement Tuesday night aimed to address problems at a “loud, unruly” party house south of the Cal campus that’s been described in testimony by neighbors as a “mini-dorm.”
Neighbors described issues with noise, drunken partiers, nudity and trash. Problems with the property, at 2133 Parker St., have been ongoing for years. In January 2012, the Berkeley City Council deemed the house a public nuisance, saying it was breaking zoning rules as a “group living accommodation” in an area that does not allow that type of housing. According to Tuesday night’s staff report, the property has 17 bedrooms across three units.
In 2012, council members told the property owner, Ali Eslami, he had to remove 10 bedrooms from the home to fix the problem. In response, Eslami sued the city the following May. Last fall, Eslami and the city attorney’s office reached a proposed settlement they hoped would put an end to the legal battle, allow Eslami to keep the existing bedrooms on site, and result in an improved environment for neighbors due to a range of guidelines Eslami agreed to follow.
Council considered that settlement Tuesday night, but ultimately found it lacking. About a dozen neighbors spoke against the settlement, asking the council to move forward with the abatement process to force Eslami to remove the bedrooms, as previously determined.
Among the neighbors, concern and anger about Eslami and his approach to housing in Berkeley was rampant. Eslami owns numerous properties around town that residents described as “overpopulated, under-maintained and just an eyesore.” Neighbors referenced at least two properties on Parker, and one on Etna.
“We’ve gotta stop this guy,” local resident George Beier told the council. “He can no longer do business in Berkeley anywhere.”
Councilman Gordon Wozniak, who attended the meeting by phone, was met with loud cheers when he said he believed the city had been right to determine 2133 Parker a nuisance. He said group living homes do not belong in low-density areas, and “don’t fit in the general plan at all,” despite the “huge financial incentives” that exist for property owners to create them.
“We should say, ‘No, it’s wrong,'” Wozniak said. “We should … take Mr. Eslami to court and beat him.”
Councilman Max Anderson said there was no way he could support the proposed settlement presented Tuesday night.
“There is too much history, too much testimony, too much awareness on the part of the people who are directly affected by this,” he said. He added that, though it might be to the city’s financial advantage to settle the lawsuit rather than fight it, “sometimes it’s just wrong. Something is just wrong. It strips people of their voices and their prerogatives. It strips people of their property rights.”
Councilwoman Linda Maio described the general feeling on the dais as “outraged” about “the horrible things that have been done to homes, the neighborhood itself, the character, the fiber of the neighborhood,” as well as the neighbors themselves.
“Our job is to figure out what our strong points are,” she said, regarding the legal case. “Not, as Councilman Anderson said, reward someone who’s kind of gone through the back door to his extreme advantage.”
The council voiced its unanimous rejection of the settlement, and asked city staff to collect more documentation related to complaints about the property. Councilman Darryl Moore was not in attendance.
Neighbors said they were pleased with the decision, and hope the city will stick with its prior determination telling Eslami to remove 10 bedrooms.
“It was exactly what we wanted,” said Phil Bokovoy, a representative of some of the neighbors who have been advocating against the situation at 2133 Parker.
Property owner Ali Eslami, who attended the meeting, declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal process.
The council is set to consider the broader issue of regulating mini-dorms in Berkeley in March, with the city Planning Commission also set to take a look at the issue in the spring, according to the staff report prepared for Tuesday night’s meeting.