Town-gown talks focus on 3-person enforcement

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December 1, 2009

3:22 AM

The City of Williamsburg’s recent enforcement of the three-person rule dominated Monday’s discussion between city leaders and representatives from the College of William and Mary’s Student Assembly.

Within the past three weeks, the city has issued several notices of compliance to the tenants, landlords and property managers of nine local houses. Residents from each of the homes have been confirmed as students at the College.

“Even though we were heard, we were told that they are going enforce [the ordinance],” SA Chief of Staff Charles Crimmins J.D. ’10 said. “I took that as meaning nothing’s changed.”

The city’s three-person rule prohibits more than three unrelated individuals from sharing a housing unit. In recent years, the ordinance has proven to be a controversial sticking point between city residents and students.

The notices came on the heels of the Williamsburg Planning Commission’s decision to recommend that the city’s B-3 district be rezoned to permit up to four unrelated individuals to share a multi-family housing unit.
The Williamsburg City Council will vote on the recommendation, as well as other proposed changes to the ordinance, Dec. 10.

“I took action when I had evidence in hand,” Williamsburg Zoning Adminstrator Rodney Rhodes, who issued the notices, said. “I got some information on all these houses at the same time.”

It is unclear what effect the notices will have on future discussions regarding the policy. Over the past year, a city-sponsored focus group and the planning commission have debated the issue extensively, but they have failed to reach a consensus outside of the B-3 agreement.

“I think these are the enforcement of individual cases,” City Manager Jack Tuttle said. “The policy is the
longer, bigger picture.”

City and student leaders had difficulty reconciling the two. Because the city is treating each case separately, and as strictly an enforcement measure, SA advocacy on behalf of the affected student tenants beyond a policy standpoint is impossible.

Student Legal Services Director Ryan Ruzic J.D. ’10, who also serves as SA vice president, announced Monday that SLS will provide free legal consultation to any students affected by the ordinance.

Student leaders were quick to point out that the date by which compliance must be reached — Jan. 5, 2010 — will be inconvenient to student renters who may be forced to move back on campus. Dormitories are not scheduled to reopen until Jan. 15.

“We think that students should be eligible for an extension,” SA President Sarah Rojas ’10 said.
Rhodes said that the city would consider requests for an extension on a case-by-case basis.

“We need to get to the root of the problem,” Crimmins said. “These citations do not solve the problem.”
Zack DeMeola J.D. ’10 said that evidentiary bias and incentive disparity are the primary student concerns that should be addressed by any future change to city policy.

Because students’s off-campus addresses are frequently listed in the student directory, it is easy for city officials to confirm violations of the three-person rule. Non-student renters, however, are unlisted in city directories. They are therefore more difficult to prosecute for violating the ordinance.

“A lot of students opted out of putting their name in the directory [last year], so it wasn’t an effective tool,” Rhodes said, referring to the dramatic increase in reported violations this academic year. “I had more evidence this year than I have in the past.”

Rhodes added that he could remember only one case in which violators of the ordinance were found not to be students, but that he is currently investigating a similar complaint.

DeMeola said that renters found to be living in violation of the ordinance are subject to de facto eviction. Although the city does not physically evict tenants, those found to be in violation face stiff fines for their
failure to comply.

This forces some tenants to find new housing, and the tenants who remain on the lease now must split the rent among fewer people; this drives driving up individual rent. Landlords, on the other hand, incur no additional costs after being found in compliance. Rent does not decline based on the number of paying tenants.

“Students are disproportionately affected by this,” Rojas said.

The recently amended noise ordinance was also discussed at the meeting. Williamsburg Police Chief Mike Yost said that since the ordinance was amended no warrants have been issued for violators.

Of the 18 noise ordinance violations issued since its enactment in August, 10 went to three individual houses, two of which have since been cited as having more than three unrelated residents.

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