Town-gown relations are ideally an extensive dialogue encompassing a wide range of issues. Of course, we’d be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that one issue has played a central and highly divisive role in Williamsburg town-gown discussions: student housing, particularly the lack thereof.
The lion’s share of this debate has recently focused on the city’s three-person rule, which allows no more than three unrelated residents to live in one housing unit. While this remains a wildly outdated regulation, and one not entirely addressed by the city’s recently passed and little-used four-person caveat, the simple fact is the majority of students living off campus aren’t affected by the rule in the first place. Off-campus apartments have always proved a more realistic and cost-effective option for most students than have any available multi-bedroom house.
Therefore, we are ecstatic to hear news that the Williamsburg City Council is poised to provide a mechanism to selectively increase maximum population density downtown, possibly paving the way for more residential apartments. However economically minded the decision may have been, the city may have stumbled on the most cogent solution possible to the current deficit of off-campus student housing.
This isn’t the first time the city council has attempted to address population density in Williamsburg. Thankfully, unlike the 2007 effort to increase maximum residential units per acre from 14 to 22, the current initiative has a significantly better chance of gaining public support. The 2007 proposal, which spawned the vocal “Stop-22” opposition movement, encouraged fears of rampant urbanization. The policy change currently under discussion presupposes a much more vigorous vetting process, while still allowing the city to reconfigure density restrictions as demand changes.
Now, there’s no doubt that the primary motivation behind this proposed policy change is economic stimulation. More residents in downtown Williamsburg means a larger captive market for current and prospective businesses. But, the proposal also incidentally addresses a wide variety of student concerns. Student renters already prefer apartments, but zoning restrictions had effectively banished large apartment complexes from the immediate areas surrounding campus. Easing those restrictions, if only on a case-by-case basis, could mean creating a more welcoming environment for student renters — and even encourage the growth of student-friendly businesses.
Hopefully, this opportunity also takes the spotlight off of the few residential areas that have become veritable hot-spots of student-resident tension. Multi-student houses always run the risk of clashing with the surrounding neighborhood, and increasing the maximum number of students per household does little to ease that strain.
Yet, as encouraging a development as this proposal is, there are still certain ways we hope to see it implemented. These exceptions to density restrictions must be realistically accessible to targeted areas. Unlike the current four-person rule, which so narrowly defines its range of applicability as to render it impotent, the city must make sure this policy actually gets used. Part of that accessibility means streamlining the application process, such that bureaucratic red tape does not become an insurmountable obstacle to applying landowners.
Students also have a share of the responsibility, too. As an important political constituency in Williamsburg, students must be sure to keep this issue active. Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but should any students be planning to campaign in next year’s city council elections, this is a topic to keep on the front burner. If more student-accessible apartments become a reality, we must make sure that students actually live there — and that they treat the apartments better than they did their freshman dormitories.
The city council’s proposal, although a minor change in policy, has the chance to benefit both students and the city at large. Let’s make sure it lives up to that potential.