Page One

Bed and Breakfast Owners Face New City Regulations

Jacob Adelman
Tuesday February 03, 2004

Berkeley’s bed and breakfast owners have nine days left to apply for a 

city license that will allow them to continue operating their ultimate “home 

businesses” in residential neighborhoods—though for former school principal 

Helen Christensen, the red tape has proved only a minor inconvenience. 

To keep operating her home as a B&B, Helen Christensen had to install a 

new smoke alarm, start keeping her dogs out of the kitchen and apply for a 

business license and health permit—tasks the retired school administrator 

performed easily.n a school principal, I’m a very good bureaucrat,” said Christensen, 67, sitting by the fireplace in the living room of the north Berkeley home she runs as the Brown Shingle B&B.  

The inspections and paperwork were part of the requirements that city health and budget officials recently started demanding of the handful of Berkeley residents who have long quietly welcomed short-term lodgers into their homes. 

Bed and breakfast owners have been under increased scrutiny since budget officials discovered in the summer of 2002 that they weren’t paying hotel taxes.  

Officials soon realized that the B&B owners were violating zoning laws by running businesses in residentially zoned areas—something that hadn’t previously attracted attention because their neighbors hadn’t complained—and that no agency was monitoring their adherence to health and safety standards.  

Councilmembers voted last fall to let the proprietors stay in business, exempting them from hotel taxes as long as their average occupancy stayed below 50 percent. The ordinance councilmembers approved also required innkeepers to apply for business licenses and allow health and safety officials to inspect their homes by Feb. 11. 

So far, a dozen or so B&B operators have applied for their licenses and permits. City budget officials are publicizing the policy in the weeks leading up to the deadline through newspaper advertisements and press releases. 

But the zoning code exemptions will only apply to the currently operating B&Bs—which means the city may be left without bed and breakfasts when the current operators stop taking guests.  

And this seems inevitable: many of the city’s bed and breakfast owners are older residents who won’t be able to accommodate guests indefinitely.  

Some city officials—as well as many current B&B operators—say it’s unfair that homeowners with empty rooms to rent are being denied the chance at some extra income.  

So along with granting the zoning and tax exemptions, councilmembers asked the city’s planning commission to look into establishing a way for further inns to open in residential areas without violating the city’s zoning ordinance. The planning commission is scheduled to take up the issue in an upcoming meeting, according to planning department secretary Ruth Grimes.  

“I’m all for the bed and breakfasts,” said Councilmember Betty Olds, whose Berkeley Hills district has many of the inns. “They add a lot to the city and people like to stay in them. For the city to freeze them out is absolutely wrong.”  

Bed and breakfasts operating on Berkeley’s residential streets account for only about 30 of the city’s roughly 1,200 guest rooms, said Barbara Hillman, president of the Berkeley Convention and Visitors Bureau.  

“It’s a very small portion, but it’s a very important one,” said Hillman “A lot of people like the ambiance of staying in a homey environment. They fill a niche that hotels can’t.”  

The city’s housing and environmental health departments are now in the process of checking whether the inns are eligible to continue filling that niche.  

Harmindar Sran, a city health specialist, said her agency has inspected all but one of the inns and that about half of them were deemed eligible for permits. B&Bs that offer food—which not all do—need health permits, Sran said, even if they are serving items prepared elsewhere using their own dishes and utensils.  

Inspectors are making sure that inns’ refrigerators are the right temperature, that they have hot and cold running water, and that they have a three-compartment sink or a dishwasher, Sran said. Innkeepers also have to demonstrate that they are getting the food they serve from sources that have their own permits, she said.  

Sran said that B&Bs are exempted from many of the requirements demanded of formal restaurants, which must use restaurant-grade equipment and provide a changing area for employees. That’s because the state food safety laws that her agency is just now starting to enforce at the inns have long offered exceptions to bed and breakfasts.  

“This isn’t something new that’s been concocted,” said Sran. “It’s just the city didn’t have these places as permitted places.”  

Housing department inspectors, meanwhile, have so far evaluated only one inn, which passed, said housing inspector Carlos Roma. Since the city’s B&Bs were originally built as single-family homes, the inns are being inspected as residences, rather than as hotels, said Roma. They are the same type of housing inspections—where lighting, ventilation and access to entrances and exits are evaluated for compliance with city codes—that are undertaken when a home is newly built or renovated, he said.  

In the months leading up to the inspections, both agencies have been fielding questions from the innkeepers about what they need to do to pass muster. “I received inquiries and I gave them some generalizations of what the minimum housing code standards are,” said Roma.  

But innkeepers say that the inspectors’ demands haven’t really required them to rethink how they run their B&Bs. They were already meeting most of the requirements without explicitly knowing what they were, they said.  

“It’s common sense,” said Mary Leggett, 64, who runs her Elmwood home as M’s Bed and Breakfast. “You put up smoke alarms. You put a pad under the rug so no one slips. You do the same things for your own family.”