Housing rule discrimination

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November 7, 2008

1:24 AM

For 17 years, the three-person housing rule has eliminated choice, driven up costs, and pitted neighbors against neighbors. Two weeks ago, The Flat Hat received a working copy of potential revisions to that law. It appeared the ice has finally begun to thaw. The current proposal falls short of a true compromise, however. So, when the Williamsburg City Council meets to discuss those changes at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13, we urge students to make the short walk over to the Stryker building to voice their opposition.

The proposal marked the first real attempt at compromise in nearly two decades, and for that we appreciate the willingness of both students and city officials to negotiate. However, the results of that negotiation remain unacceptable. The permit process at the heart of the plan would open select houses to four unrelated renters, but that’s hardly a true compromise. Student leaders came to the table with a plan to allow one more renter than the number of bedrooms in the house. We also favor a plan that accounts for a house’s ability to accommodate renters.

For the most part, it appears those opposing expanded property rights fear that more renters will diminish the value of their own homes — that a five-person household will destroy the character of their communities. We find these fears both insulting and disheartening. The last half-century has witnessed economic diversity all but evaporate in neighborhoods across the country, and a more lenient rule in Williamsburg would improve affordability by allowing people to split high rents. To support affordable housing without reconsidering the three-person rule is to defy logic. If greater freedom in the housing market opens it to a broader swath of potential renters, then we’re okay with a possible loss of value.

But perhaps that’s a question best saved for a plan with the potential to bring about change. As it stands right now, the set of stipulations on the current proposal would still render the vast majority of homes ineligible for four people. Specifically, the proviso that requires parking spaces for four cars on the property or on the street out front would keep many houses from qualifying. To be sure, most homeowners would rather not see their streets transformed into parking garages, but a permit process could easily be arranged on a house-by-house, street-by-street basis. Including on-street parking in the debate irrationally conjoins separate issues.

If parking is the concern, limiting the available permits is no more difficult than changing a number in a database. Basing the decision of whether four people can safely live in a house by the number of parking spots available sidesteps the actual problem and would be an easy provision for the city to abuse. Also, many students don’t bring cars to campus, preferring to walk or bike. Any proposal should allow renters to decide for themselves whether parking restrictions are a deal-breaker.

Perhaps the leaked proposal will be the best to come down the pike. If that’s the case, we’d urge students to fight against it. The current plan would do no more than exchange the three-person rule for a four-car requirement. Students can’t stand aside while that happens. They control enough of the votes in Williamsburg to win a better compromise. Until that better offer comes along, we’d urge them to continue doing what they’ve been doing: finding ways to fight a bad law. As equal members of the community, they deserve equal rights.

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