Lakewood looks to protect its residential neighborhoods

It’s not often that Lakewood building officials come across single-family homes illegally converted into small apartments. But when it happens, it’s a big deal.

“Generally, all of the sudden, you see 10 or 12 cars in the front yard, garbage is not picked up, people come and go at all times of the day. It feels more like an apartment complex,” said David Bugher, Lakewood’s assistant city manager for development and community development director.

That’s why the Lakewood City Council recently approved a new ordinance giving the city more authority to pursue property owners who make the illegal house conversions.

The changes, adopted Aug. 4, redefine the word “family” and require owners to secure a conditional use permit before converting a home for four or more people who are not related. Existing boarding homes have until the end of 2015 to comply with the new regulations.

“The code says you will have performance standards so you don’t bother your neighbors,” Bugher said.

It also says a property manager must be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Councilman Paul Bocchi requested the city look at how to handle such situations after reading about a similar problem in Bellevue more than a year ago. Bocchi also has seen it first-hand in Lakewood.

“A few years ago we had one in my cul de sac,” he said. “We don’t know to this day how many people actually lived there. Eventually it flipped and went back to a single-family residence.”

More recently, Lakewood building officials dealt with a conversion in which a large number of people lived in a house. The home had kitchens and bathrooms installed illegally, which is a safety concern, Bugher said.

“In those kind of situations, we know something is going on, but they don’t let us in the house,” Bugher said.

The recent code change allows the city to pursue legal action if a property owner refuses to cooperate, he said.

City code enforcement officers don’t drive around looking for illegal boarding homes; they rely on neighbors to report suspicious living conditions.

“The neighbors are going to know more about their neighborhoods than we are,” Bugher said.

Once the city learns of a suspect property, it will monitor the house, record the number of people coming and going, and talk with adjacent property owners. It will also examine utility bills, check if the home has garbage service — a code violation if it doesn’t — and start asking questions of residents.

The new ordinance allows the city to begin legal proceedings or force the property owner to apply for a conditional use permit. The city can also impose fines and penalties.

The changes make exceptions for adult family homes, foster homes and other legal housing arrangements where multiple people who are not related live together. The focus of the ordinance is to stop illegal home conversions — something Bugher thinks the city could see more and more as home prices and the cost of living continues to rise.

“This is really about protecting single-family neighborhoods,” he said.