Mayor talks town and gown

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February 12, 2008

12:38 PM

__Zeidler discusses 3-person rule, rental inspection and student voting__

The Flat Hat talked with Williasmburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler Wednesday, Feb. 6, at the Jamestown 2007 building on Francis Street about the relationship between students and the city.
Flat Hat: You’re the mayor of a tourist town, a college town and a retirement town all in one. What do you think of this dynamic?
Mayor Jeanne Zeidler: I think it’s great. I love the diversity that’s here — I think people come here and people live here who value that. They either work at the College, they work in the tourism industry, they may work at businesses that support that industry or the College, and I think the fact that we have so much variety is great. It’s a very special place.

p. **FH: How do you balance the conflicting interests of the three distinct groups?**

p. **Z:** As carefully as possible, trying to listen to everybody and hear their needs and figure out what is fairest to all and the greatest good for the long-term future of the city. When you try to take into consideration the long-term future of the city, you have to take into consideration the health and the vitality of William and Mary, of Colonial Williamsburg and of our neighborhoods and other businesses here. For long-term goals, our interests are all the same — sometimes it’s tactics and how you get there.

p. **FH: How would you describe the relationship between students and Williamsburg’s permanent residents?**

p. **Z:** I think it’s actually pretty good — different than some people’s perceptions. But I think it’s pretty good, and I think it’s growing and improving all the time. We had a wonderful — actually really great — Williamsburg Neighborhood City Council meeting at the College of William and Mary last Saturday morning, and there was a wonderful panel of students representing not just student government, but other organizations — APO and the organization that is working on international service projects and also the environmental group. And I think it was a terrific dialogue. It was great information and a very warm feeling there. I think in a lot of different ways, people focus on the negatives. I think there’s a lot of positive going on. Last week also, the new Student Chamber of Commerce held their first public meeting. There was I think a very, very healthy showing of local business people and again great feeling of warmness and welcoming on both sides.

p. **FH: Why do you think it is that people perceive animosity between students and the city?**

p. **Z:** I think there are points of disagreement — not the city itself but some neighbors and neighborhoods, and I think there certainly is in some ways misunderstanding and in some ways not misunderstandings about certain of the city’s ordinances and the goals that they’re trying to achieve, and all of that leads to suspicion and mistrust. Until people start talking to each other honestly, frankly and frequently I think that kind of perception of “we’re at odds” is there, so we just have to keep working on it.

p. **FH: What is the purpose of the three-person rule and do you think it targets student renters?**

p. **Z:** The three-person rule was put into place in 1991, and I cannot tell you exactly what the motivation for that at the time was because I don’t know. I can tell you what I believe the goal is of that rule and what people in the neighborhoods would say. The idea is to continue to sustain a quality character in what were built as single-family neighborhoods, and that number three — I can’t tell you that that’s the best number or the only number. It happens to be the number we have at this point. But that number three is a number that people, at least in 1991 and for the years since then, have felt comfortable with as a good number that would prevent many, many people living in a neighborhood with too many cars in neighborhoods that weren’t built for cars. It’s a neighborhood protection issue that maybe could be addressed some other ways, but we haven’t found what that is yet.

p. **FH: How do you justify the three number when it comes to houses that have four bedrooms?**

p.**Z:** The three number is justified only by the fact, I think, that we haven’t figured out how you would enforce differential numbers. The City Council has been on record as being willing to work and talk about other alternatives. There have been some discussions in the past years with committees of students, but they haven’t really produced results. This year our city manager and some representatives of the Student Assembly and from our city attorney’s office and our code’s compliance and our neighborhood council are all working to sit down again to look at what is permissible by state law — what will protect the neighborhoods but perhaps provide some other options. We’re very willing to look at this, but it’s not an easy problem to solve unless you just say, “no three person rule,” but like I said if you just sort of abolished it all then we would open the door to the ability of a whole lot of people in one house, which is not only not healthy but probably not good for neighborhoods.

p. **FH: What is the purpose for the rental inspection program that allows the city to inspect rental homes every time tenants change?**

p. **Z:** That program was put in several years ago because we saw in some neighborhoods with older homes that, particularly rental units, were not consistently being taken care of, and we heard over a period of times reports, stories and complaints from students and others — and students’ parents — about conditions in some of these rental units that were unsafe and unhealthy. The City Council decided to take an active approach to trying to maintain the housing stock in the city so that these units don’t deteriorate, but also to take an active approach to trying to fix up those units and houses so that we do not have the kinds of tragedies that we’ve heard about on other campuses or near college campuses like Maryland when there was a really horrible fire a few years ago where some students died and the carbon monoxide problem that was at Virginia Tech earlier this year. We do not want to hit national newspapers by having places where students and other renters are not safe and in unhealthy conditions. We’ve had the stories of an undergraduate who spent her year with no hot water in her house because she was afraid to complain. One of the most egregious cases that our rental inspection people found was a house that a student lived in that had a gas leak that was undetectable by smell — so these are potentially deadly. That’s the goal of the program — to try to keep these programs safe and good places to live.

p. **FH: Is it used as way to enforce the three person rule?**

p. **Z:** It is not. People have said that since the beginning of this program, and we’ve said repeatedly and our city attorney has said repeatedly that the goal of this is safe housing. It is illegal for us to use this as a way to enforce the three-person rule — we don’t do it. You can’t do it anyway. If somebody goes in to inspect a house when people are changing occupancy, how do you know how many people are moving in and how many people moved out? And if they’re moving out it doesn’t matter anyway. So it is just not used that way, and it can’t be used that way.

p. **FH: The state allows these rental inspection programs in districts that are considered blighted. Would you consider the area around the College blighted?**

p.**Z:** Well that’s a pretty harsh term, but what we know is that there are some properties there that were not being maintained well and maybe some others that still are [not being maintained well]. That’s a term that is a legal term that’s imposed upon us, so I guess we have to say there’s some blight in those neighborhoods.

p. **FH: The Flat Hat recently ran a report about the city’s policy of buying rental houses and asserting clauses in the deed that requires the new owners to live in them. Why has the city decided to convert rental houses into owner-occupied houses?**

p. **Z:** First off I wouldn’t say this is exactly a city policy. It is an experiment that the city is trying and has tried in a few neighborhoods. The idea of imposing owner-occupied clauses in some houses in some neighborhoods is to try to keep a balance of rental and owner-occupied in neighborhoods because we think — and I think — having a balance creates a healthy neighborhood and good housing opportunities for a range of people. I’m sure you’re aware and have seen the reports recently of the shortage we have in this city of affordable housing not only students who want to live off campus but for people who work in our businesses and industries around here – lower-income people and to create some of these units with owner-occupied clauses can help keep some section of the housing stock available to lower-income people….

p. **FH: Do you think it’s the city’s responsibility to take part in the market and manipulate it?**

p. **Z:** It was really the Redevelopment and Housing Authority that did this, and that certainly is part of their mandate — to create home ownership and opportunities and also opportunities for low to moderate income people. That’s the job they were set up to do.…

p. **FH: The Harrison House that the Housing Authority purchased will likely lose thousands of dollars when it is sold. Would you consider the experiment a success?**

p.**Z:** That would be a conversation I’d like to have with the Housing Authority and with my colleagues and see what ultimately happens to that house. It was really taking something that was in not very good condition and then rehabbing it. The city lent the money, $270-some thousand to the Housing Authority, to make the project go, but then the Housing Authority put in another over $100 thousand in rehabbing it. So, you know, what’s the measure of success? One measure might be that that house is now in far better condition than it was before. But then another measure might be selling it and not losing any of the money you put into it. That’s really a Housing Authority decision….

p. **FH: One of the biggest complaints among students is that there aren’t enough student-oriented businesses around campus. Why do you think this is and do you think it will change in the future?**

p. **Z:** I think it’s a function of a couple of things. One is the land costs around here, that it takes a lot to invest in it, and you have to have either people who are very interested in the College and wanting to do something that’s good for the health of the College and the community and invest in a business that would be attractive to students and others. I came here in 1971 to go to graduate school at William and Mary, and there were many more student-oriented businesses around the campus at that point in time, but that was really before a lot of things were built on campus. It has to make business sense for businesses to invest, and so some of the student money is being spent on campus — how big a factor that is I can’t tell you. What I know for a fact is that for several years the city has been working diligently with the economic development office on campus to identify locations that would be good for student-oriented businesses…. Last year when we did some rezoning, we removed the parking requirements for new businesses downtown and around the campus area, and in doing that, we provided a lot more opportunities for more commercial enterprises and businesses to come in because they don’t have to come in and buy the lot next store and tear down whatever businesses there and put parking in. The idea is that there is such a large population of people on campus within walking distance of businesses around here that we don’t need those parking requirements, and this would ease some of those restrictions for businesses…. Chipotle, for example, is very interested in coming now because of that work and has committed to opening a place here actually in 2008, so it’s really been a long-term effort first trying to identify where they could go…. So I think that from my perspective, yes we have a long way to go — we’re not there yet — but we’re doing everything we can think of to make it attractive and to encourage those businesses to come including using our economic manager’s time and contacts and expertise to try to attract them….

p. **FH: What caused the sudden reversal in students ability to vote and do you think that can change again?**

p. **Z:** I cannot tell you exactly what caused it because that is a function of the voter registrar, but clearly the new voter registrar interprets the law in a different way than the last voter registrar did. I seriously doubt that there would be a going backward of that. I think there’s a precedence set in this office, and that’s the situation we have now and will have going forward.

p. **FH: More than 700 students have now registered to vote in Williamsburg. How will this impact local politics and do you think local politicians will now be more responsive to student issues?**

**Z:** First off, I think local politicians have been responsive to student issues. What this potentially does is engage more students in the issues and in the process, and therefore their voice will be louder and hopefully the result of that will be that people will understand their positions and their wants and needs and desires better, and in that sense, yeah, I think it will make the city government more responsive. We have to understand what people need and want.

p. **FH: Do you think there is more student activism than there has been in previous years?**
**Z:** I actually do think there’s more student activism and I think that’s good.

p. **FH: What do you think has caused that?**
**Z:** Probably a number of things, but I think it’s a general tone in our country. The people are turning again back to being more interested in non-profit organizations and the environment and what they can do as citizens to make a difference and make a change, and I think that’s reflected through this, and I applaud that.

p. **FH: You were at WM in the 1970s. What issues were students protesting back then, and were you involved?**
**Z:**When I came to William and Mary, it was the Vietnam War, and yes I was…. I was pretty active in the student anti-war movement and in the women’s movement and in other social movements of the late 60s and early 70s.

p. **FH: What think of city government back then?**

**Z:** Well, I thought that the city government was run by a few elite people back then.… [One of the reasons I ran for] City Council in Williamsburg was to try to be a voice for fairness and for everybody and for positive change.

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