Off-campus discrimination

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August 29, 2007

12:22 PM

Welcome Class of 2011. You are going to learn a great many things this week. You will sit through orientation sessions. You will attend your very first college classes. But there is one thing that will not be covered in any orientation meetings or listed on any course syllabi, despite its being so constant and pervasive here that it seems to thicken the very air we all breathe. That thing is legalized discrimination.

p. Perhaps you’ve read about discrimination in your high school social history classes or heard stories from parents about civil rights protests, but you have probably not lived it yourself. You probably thought it had been banished from American government long ago. I know I did. The defeat of institutionalized discrimination is, after all, a point of such national pride that we celebrate it every January during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But discrimination is still alive and well here in Williamsburg. And you are the target.

p. The Williamsburg City Council, led by Mayor Jeanne Zeidler, rules its eight and a half square miles with a shockingly unconcealed loathing for the William and Mary students that make up over half of the town’s population. There are many examples of this, but one of the most outrageous is the city’s open hostility to students who try to live in off-campus rental houses.

p. It started in 1991, when the city passed a law forbidding more than three non-related people to live together. (For non-math majors, that would be after the first three centuries of the College’s history, during which time no such law ever became necessary.) This law can only serve to prevent students from living off-campus. Most Williamsburg houses are very large and the only way students can afford them is by splitting the rent between several people.

p. Zeidler’s justification for the law seems to change with the seasons, but I’ll address some of her more common excuses for this particular bit of discrimination. Zeidler has said that allowing more than three unrelated people to live together would make parking on residential streets too tight. I live on Harrison Avenue, one of the most centrally located and student-heavy residential streets in Williamsburg, and there is always plenty of open parking. Indeed, I have never had a problem finding open parking on any residential Williamsburg street. This is because there are a limited number of street parking permits granted. If parking did indeed become scarce, the city could simply issue fewer permits.
Zeidler has also said that the goal of the law is to “maintain the single-family character of the city’s residential neighborhoods.”

p. The brazen discrimination of legislating what kind of people can live where is jaw-dropping — try replacing “single-family” with the words “middle class” or “Christian” or “white” and see if her logic still seems defensible. But even Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who worked to maintain the all-white “character” of his public schools until the National Guard interceded, probably thought he was justified.

p. Zeidler’s enforcement of the “three-person rule,” as it is known among students, has been ruthless. Most recently, Jan. 31, the city announced that it had found 38 violators of the rule. How many of the 38 victims do you suppose were students? That’s right — every single one. The students were told they would not be evicted until the end of that semester but the wording of the notice clearly implied that this might not be the case for future violators.

p. Worse, the city did not seek out the violators by following up noise complaints or parking violations or any other neighborhood disturbances. Rather, it only checked the College’s registry of student addresses. Any address with more than three students registered to it received an eviction notice. The city went after students and only students.

p. Not convinced students are the targets? Last August, the Williamsburg City Council voted to allow Busch Entertainment to house 80 Russian exchange workers in 20 motel rooms, then turned around and denied a permit for four students to live in a house together.

p. As far as I can tell, no one who was not a student at the College has ever been held accountable for this ridiculous rule.

p. Overcrowding of local houses, it seems, is not the real issue here. The only issue seems to be that the Williamsburg City Council does not like College students living here. And they want us to know it.

p. I wish I could tell you that this was the worst crime that Zeidler and the Williamsburg City Council commit against students, but it is not even close. Next week, this column will explore the extensive lengths to which the City Council has gone to block students from voting.

p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__

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