The Williamsburg Planning Commission is set to review the city council’s proposed changes to the three-person rule in a series of meetings next month, during which public comment will be invited. Since students almost never attend such meetings, we know what public comment will really mean in this case: It is a safe bet that the commission will hear nearly unanimous calls to change this already bad proposal into something even worse — for students at least. While it remains to be seen how the commission will respond to these calls, it is now clear that if students hope to achieve any real progress in this area, they need to dramatically increase their involvement in this process and their presence in local politics in general.
Only at first does the city’s current proposal look like progress. Yes, it would create the possibility that four unrelated people could live legally together in a house in Williamsburg. But the cost for this change will likely be too high: To obtain this permit, landlords will be forced to go through an overly difficult and costly application process, and to live in a four-person house, residents would have to give their names to the city and submit to possibly invasive inspections at only a day’s notice.
More importantly, because of restrictions in what type of house is eligible for the new kind of permit, only a small number of large houses would be affected by the change. If this proposal were to become law, the vast majority of student renters and their neighbors would experience no change, essentially putting us back at square one after a year of wrangling.
No one should be happy with this outcome. Cash-strapped student renters will continue to evade an unenforceable law by not signing a lease, forgoing both the protections and responsibilities of such a document. Their neighbors will continue to have little recourse when they suspect students are living illegally, and renting will remain just as popular in residential areas. Then this issue will resurface in a year or two, restarting this process all over again.
Of course, the Planning Commission will likely change the proposal, as they should. Maybe they will address the actual problem with the three-person rule by creating occupancy limits based on how many people per house can be safely and comfortably accommodated within it. And they may even write in long-term plans to create separate zoned high- and low-density areas that will allow for the mutual existence of single-family neighborhoods and student-friendly housing. In the meantime, students should be allowed to live where they can live comfortably. Expecting them to maintain high standards as neighbors should suffice, and if it does not, the city has strong noise and nuisance ordinances that can be put into play.
But we are not holding our breath. Something even less responsive to student and resident needs than what we already have on hand will likely emerge from this.
So what can be done? Students need to become much more active in this process both now and in the future. A strong student showing at these Planning Commission meetings will only be a start. Turning out to vote in the city council elections this spring is absolutely essential. Only when we form a unified and active voting bloc can we expect any responsiveness from elected representatives responsible to their constituents.