It was an old laundry room that wasn’t being used, and Rachel Sene figured it could do some good.
Years ago, she had run into a man she knew who said he was homeless and sleeping on the streets of Santa Monica. The local property owner was taken aback by his status update, and she felt she was in a position to help.
Sene invited the man to live in the unoccupied room off the alley near her property at the corner of 9th Street and Alta Avenue, an arrangement that she said lasted about a decade.
“I never charged one cent,” she said.
It was Sene’s way of assisting someone in need, of thinking globally and acting locally.
But as far as the City of Santa Monica was concerned, it wasn’t legal.
After receiving a complaint from an undisclosed citizen, city officials inspected the room in March. It was determined that the unofficial unit was not in tune with city regulations, code enforcement manager Sharon Guidry said.
“That case is still pending compliance,” Guidry said recently, declining to comment on its specifics because it was active. “We had a complainant alleging that there was a violation. … As a result, an enforcement action was taken.”
When Guidry’s department receives complaints about noncompliance, they investigate to determine whether violations exist or not. Sometimes, she said, complainants come forward with allegations that don’t pan out or with accusations that are true but not illegal. Other times, the claims lead to the discovery of real infractions.
Of the approximately 40,000 units registered with the city following the 1979 enactment of Santa Monica’s rent control law, roughly 1,000 “bootleg” units were determined to have been created without building permits or other approvals, according to a city report in 2003. That year, City Council decided to allow bootleg units to remain in the housing stock as long as they met safety requirements for habitability and were registered with the Rent Control Board by April of that year.
Speaking generally, Guidry said bootleg units can still be registered and estimated that more than 200 such units exist today.
“When there’s an allegation of an unpermitted unit, the investigation includes trying to confirm if it’s just an unpermitted unit, if it’s under the rent control registry or if it’s bootleg,” Guidry said. “[A bootleg unit] doesn’t necessarily have to meet zoning standards. The unit just has to be habitable or can be made habitable.”
Over time, Sene said, she made the space more comfortable for the man. She took out the large water heater. She bought him an army cot initially, later upgrading the space with a bed.
At first, she said, the man was using bathrooms wherever he could. About five years ago, she put in a toilet and sink.
“He was clean, and he was neat,” she said. “He had everything right there.”
Everything, it seems, but city approval.
When the city receives a complaint regarding a registered unit and there’s never been a determination that it’s habitable, officials inspect the unit to make sure it’s safe. If the unit is not registered, Guidry said, the property owner is required to either obtain a permit to legalize it as a bootleg unit or restore it for a use that’s permitted by city code.
To Sene, though, the city’s recent actions reveal the local government’s lack of agility and common sense.
“They have their rules and reasons,” she said. “I just think Santa Monica is becoming mean-spirited.”
The situation is particularly disappointing for Sene, who is of Cuban descent. She said the island country handles homelessness better than the U.S. does.
“Every time I see a homeless person here, I just don’t understand it,” she said. “They shouldn’t be sleeping in doorways and cardboard boxes. They’re people who fell through the cracks.”
According to Sene, the man who had been living in the old laundry room left immediately after the city’s recent inspection.
“It’s an empty, beautiful room just sitting there,” she said.