Friday, June 12, 2009

The 3-person rule: What we have here is a failure to negotiate

So the Williamsburg City Council has decided to continue studying changes to the city’s 3-person rule.

Last week council told staff to look over the report from the citizen focus group that it appointed, which was unable to reach compromise after several months of work, and to try to pick out of it recommendations that were legal and sensible to help resolve the issue of student housing near the College of William & Mary.

I went to every meeting of that focus group. It was an educational experience.

I have to confess that I started out in sympathy with the students who want to expand or eliminate the rule that limits the number of unrelated persons who can live together in a home.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s the government’s business, outside of protecting public health and safety, to interfere in peoples’ living arrangements.

And I’m pretty sure the city can’t make a convincing case that four students living in a four-bedroom house constitute a threat to the public health or safety. In fact, since the sleeping arrangements inside the house aren’t any of the government’s business either, I’m not sure a case could be made to prohibit four students living in a two-bedroom apartment.

I also believed, and still do, that the neighbors’ complaints about partying and noise – which the city has other ordinances to address – were exaggerated.

I’ve met enough William & Mary students doing this job to know that they are, by and large, the boring, grade-obsessed grinds that they are reputed to be. No one comes to William & Mary to party. In fact, outside of VMI and Liberty University – which are really more medium-security prisons than colleges – W&M has to be the worst party school in the state. If you want to see college parties, go to JMU or VCU or Tech.

Also, I’m not very sympathetic to the homeowners’ desire to “preserve the character” of their neighborhoods. If you live in a city, neighborhoods change. Cities are dynamic. They evolve. That’s what some of us like about them. No one has a right to have their neighborhood stay just the way it was when they moved in. If you want that, move to a gated community in the suburbs. And, if you choose to live next to a college – which has been there about 300 years longer than any of the houses currently in those neighborhoods – you can expect that some of your neighbors are going to be college students.

Perhaps I’m less sympathetic because, although I work in Williamsburg, I live in Richmond. The Fan District near VCU features huge buildings that house student renters interspersed chock-a-block with single-family homes. And they are expensive single-family homes, even by the inflated standards of Williamsburg.

It’s among the city’s most fashionable addresses. It features tremendous turn-of-the-last-century architecture. I lived in the Fan, as a renter, while I was in college and when I was a newly-married college graduate. I’d live in the Fan now – if I could afford a house there.

I think part of the problem in Williamsburg is that the neighborhoods close to the college don’t have enough young professionals and families with kids living in them, due to the high prices charged for even an unremarkable house in the city. That means the neighborhoods are primarily filled with senior citizens. I can see where senior citizens and college students living side by side would be a problem. A senior citizen living next door to my house would probably have noise complaints too.

But, while I initially sympathized with the students, I found my sympathies shifting during the course of focus group’s deliberations.

That’s because one side of the negotiations – the homeowners – were being reasonable and negotiating in good faith and the other side – the students and the college – were not.

The homeowners were up front in saying that they were willing to agree to an increase in the three-person limit, if the college and the students were willing to agree to measures that would allow the limit to be enforced.

Enforcement of the current three-person rule is a joke. Homeowners learned from students during the focus group discussions that most off-campus William & Mary students are living in violation of the three-person rule.

And they got the impression that this would continue, no matter what they did about the limit. It was pretty evident from the student’s rejection of any measures that would increase enforcement that not only do they not have any intention of ever abiding by the three-person rule, but they also don’t have any intention of ever obeying any future, higher limit either.

They failed to negotiate, in part because they don’t have any intention of obeying the ordinance whatever it says and in part because they don’t believe they have to.

A student told me, when the group failed to reach consensus, that council “wants to raise the limit.”

That’s true of at least two members of council, because Mayor Jeanne Zeidler and Vice Mayor Clyde Haulman negotiated an increase in the limit from three to four with representatives of city staff and the Student Assembly before the focus group was ever formed.

Another thing that became apparent during the focus group deliberations is that whatever money the state is paying for administration at the college is wasted, because the students are running the place.

The college administration would not agree to anything opposed by the students, even backing their raising a bogus privacy issue to avoid providing their real local addresses to either the city or the college administration.

Note to students: It’s not a violation of your privacy rights for the college to require your real local address. That’s the way it works in the real world. My employer knows my real address. Of course I had the choice of not providing it, if I didn’t want to work here. That principle should apply to you as well. I’m not sure why you’d want to attend a institution of higher learning that you didn’t trust with your real address. Well, I do know why, it’s because you don’t have any intention of obeying the law.

It’s understandable that college students would want to pack as many people into a house as possible, to pay less rent. I spent part of my time in college living in a seven “bedroom” house with seven other people. It only had seven bedrooms because every room that wasn’t a kitchen or a bathroom was used as a bedroom. I think I paid $50 a month rent when I first moved in.

What isn’t understandable is that the college administration doesn’t care that its students are routinely and cavalierly breaking the laws of the community where they live and in which the college is located. And that, in fact, the college is aiding and abetting in that deception. The college administration made it clear that first, they don’t think violations of the three-person rule are any big deal, certainly not enough to subject the student to any repercussions from the college and second, that enforcing that rule was the landlords’ responsibility.

In the latter objection, the college administration touched on one of the weaknesses of the focus group. The one landlord on the panel, Greg Granger, is also a city homeowner and saw the issue through that prism as often as from the landlord’s perspective. Many of the landlords who rent to students are absentee landlords whose properties are run by local property management companies. No representative of those companies was on the panel and the focus group never heard any testimony from management companies about what they could do to help alleviate the problem.

So the homeowners, who’d offered an expansion of the rule and expected some enforcement mechanisms in return, were offered platitudes about teaching the students to be better neighbors and “talking to them” – but only after a second complaint had been unsuccessfully raised with the students. The college was only willing to get involved at the “third strike” stage.

As Bill Dell, the most out-spoken of the homeowners, frequently said the college and the students “hadn’t brought anything of value to the table.”

And that, understandably, wasn’t good enough for the homeowners.
Council may still, after a decent interval for city staff to study the issue, move forward with expanding the three-person rule.

But, it seems to me, if they do so without providing for stricter enforcement mechanisms, if they don’t ask students to give something up to get something, they do so at their own political peril.

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