Thursday, Aug. 12, Williamsburg City Council unanimously voted (5-0) in favor of a three-year moratorium on the city code that allows single-family unattached dwellings to rent to four unrelated people. The decision is a continuation of Williamsburg’s two-decade-long struggle with off-campus housing, resurfacing tensions between long-term residents and student renters.
The moratorium will pause homeowners’ ability to apply for approval with the City to rent to four unrelated people. While state and city code decree that only three unrelated individuals can live together, the City of Williamsburg passed a law in 2010 that stated an additional fourth person may be allowed in a single-family unattached dwelling if the home meets certain requirements.
The moratorium will not affect any homes that have already been approved by the City; it will only stop new houses from applying.
The proposed moratorium was first brought up at the Williamsburg Planning Commission meeting on July 14 by the Neighborhood Balance Committee. Some members of the committee and Williamsburg residents spoke at the meeting in favor of the moratorium, saying that the transient nature of student renters hurts the neighborhood and that the fourth-person allowance has increased roads’ trash and traffic.
Resident on Goodwin Street Flora Adams said that approximately half of the 31 residents on her street are students, and they do not live permanently in Williamsburg when the College of William and Mary is not in session.
“When the four-person rule was passed it was considered a trial to be reevaluated after a few years; now is the time for that revaluation,” Adams said. “As far as I’m concerned, the four-person permit has been a failure. A definite detriment to our old residential neighborhood.”
Adams mentioned her disapproval with the fact that the approval for four-person houses will transfer with owners if the house is sold, making them more appealing to investors. She also spoke of her fears when a house on her street went on sale, as it could have become a student rental.
“Had that happened, we would now be surrounded with students to our left, our right, across from us and behind us at the end of Powell Street,” Adams said. “…The absence of permanent residents strongly diminishes our sense of community. Obviously, we do not see our neighbors as often, it’s harder to keep up with what’s going on, whether someone needs help … My house was a student rental when we bought it. In fact, it was an unofficial fraternity party house. It could easily be one again. I expect a few Goodwins street houses to be on the market within the next 5 to 10 years. If the ratio of students to residents gets any worse, the street could easily become a student slum.”
The Planning Commission voted 3-2 against the recommendation of the moratorium to City Council. Despite this vote, the moratorium was still proposed to the council and was passed on Aug. 12.
City Councilman Caleb Rogers ’20 said that the council approved the moratorium in order to better evaluate the changes that newly developed apartment buildings in the area will have on students living off-campus. Rogers also stated that the moratorium was placed in order to develop a “rent ready program,” which would increase landlord accountability and protect students.
“This is why the pause for the fourth person rule was put into place — more or so that we can take a step back, see some of the change from our new off-campus housing stock, and then ultimately come back with I think protections for both students who are renting in the neighborhoods but also for the local community that may own in the neighborhoods to try to continue that sort of harmony that the Neighborhood Balance Committee was trying to find,” Rogers said.
Rogers stated that the three-year moratorium will not affect any students already living off-campus and that on average it would mean only six houses could not apply for a four-person house approval. Currently, 38 houses in Williamsburg have been granted approval since the law was first passed.
Rogers also notes that he believes anti-student sentiment comes from a small minority of Williamsburg residents.
“So I don’t find that there’s, at least from the residents I’ve spoken to, an anti-student sentiment; that may be the case from a small minority, but more of the residents I speak to are well aware of the fact that living next to a college there will be students next door to them,” Rogers said. “Usually the ones — and certainly the ones that I live next to on Virginia Avenue — are more in the camp of when new students move to an area, they might take them a gift basket or invite them to a neighborhood picnic. And so I don’t think so much from the actual community members I’ve spoken to that there’s an anti-student sentiment.”
Despite Rogers’ claim, many students became concerned about the moratorium being passed along with a short column published by the Virginia Gazette’s Last Word.
“Fellow Williamsburg neighbors: this is the time to document rental move-ins, particularly those rentals which have been problematic in past years,” the anonymous individual wrote on Aug. 3. “Later, it is more difficult for the city to intervene because they have to give landlords and tenants notice which allows time to hide violations. Owner-occupied residents continue to ask city government for help with occupancy violations and party houses so, by documenting new tenant move-ins, including the number of families helping adult children move in, number of mattresses, vehicle information, fraternity and sorority identifiers, and parties, you can help the city intervene and help preserve our neighborhoods.”
Student Assembly President Meghana Boojala ’22 included the Last Word paragraph into an email that was sent to the entire student body and urged students to attend the city council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 9.
Student Assembly Vice President Zenobia Goodman ’22 said that they found the language used against students to be unfair — especially in regard to the implied surveillance — and they wanted students to speak up at the council meeting as it affects them directly.
“I feel very personally about Colonial Williamsburg, not only because I go here, but I mean, if you look at the history about like, Colonial Williamsburg and like this area, there has been like, a lot of pushing out of like, people predominantly of like POC communities and stuff like that,” Goodman said. “And like, it’s just I think, sometimes, there can be kind of a notorious and nasty history regarding that. And I think that, you know, when stuff like this starts it sounds like it’s going that direction, like, I don’t know, if you have seen the quote about like, ‘students slums’ and stuff like that. And I was like, I don’t like the connotations of that. I think it’s going and like, you know, if it keeps going in that direction, it could be crossing like a really nasty line. And I think like that should be stopped.”
At the Sept. 9 council meeting, Goodman, Class of 2023 President Conor Sokolowsky ’23 and Sen. Cody Armstrong ’22 spoke against the moratorium during the open forum.
Armstrong interned with the City of Williamsburg over the summer and used his senate Instagram account to educate and call to action students on the moratorium issue. Armstrong noted that it was difficult for students to have a voice as both the Planning Commission and City Council meetings took place before college move-in.
“At the end of the day, yes, there are some bad students who do party a little bit too much; I’m not going to lie about that,” Armstrong said. “They’re students who don’t pick up their trash, they don’t abide by some city ordinances. But that’s not the vast majority of them. And a lot of these problems that these neighbors are complaining about are landlords, they’re talking about bad upkeep, upkeep of these houses. Which gets blamed on the students, but it really is a landlord issue of taking care of the houses.”
Armstrong inherited a student organization from Rogers called the Student Residence Group, which aims to lobby the City Council for student interests.
“This moratorium is a dog whistle,” Armstrong said. “It let’s city residents who care about this issue know that, hey, city council is willing to put in a proposal that negatively affects students. Even though it’s not removing houses, it removes any additional options where a house might be able to hold for students from being added.”
“This moratorium is a dog whistle,” Armstrong said. “It lets city residents who care about this issue know that, hey, city council is willing to put in a proposal that negatively affects students. Even though it’s not removing houses, it removes any additional options where a house might be able to hold for students from being added.”
Armstrong says he plans to continue to advocate against anti-student sentiment and the moratorium.
“It’s not that the moratorium itself is bad,” Armstrong said. “It’s the actions that can happen and most likely will happen … The moratorium itself does not have a bite. But it’s what happens next that will. It’s that neighborhood sentiments, these downtown neighborhoods, as you probably saw on the Last Word column that was sent out, are actively looking for these violations so then they can report them. These people can get kicked out of the house, decreasing the amount of students in there… but that negatively affects students. I don’t know how feasible that is, but it’s happened before and it can happen again. Before the four-person exemption, a student was displaced from his house because there were more than three students in there. The three-person rule is antiquated and some would call it arbitrary.”