Crowded house: It may be cozy, but should it be illegal?

Published March 20, 2003, in issue #0211 of The Hook


Catharine Anas lives in the same Piedmont Avenue house where she grew up. In the '40s and '50s, the area was a close-knit neighborhood whose families knew and kept an eye out for each other.

When Anas moved back in 1992, there'd been a change in the old 'hood. Instead of families in homes like the one she grew up in, houses, many of which had been converted to duplexes, were now full of students. And along with the eight students officially allowed to crowd into those dwellings have come their cars, congesting the streets, parking on lawns, and even at times blocking Anas' driveway.

At night and on weekends, partygoers flock to the already crowded streets, bringing trash and noise that makes Anas feel like she's living in a dormitory. "Call us naïve, but nothing really prepared us for what we have encountered over the past 11 years," she says.

Yet, if students seem to be multiplying like rabbits, the proposed solution offered by city leaders opens a hornet's nest of issues. Not the least of them is privacy, and what one critic terms a "bizarre" indifference to the notion of affordable housing. And even the city admits it can't enforce its current zoning laws.

Part of Charlottesville's new zoning ordinance will limit the number of unrelated adults living together from four to three in some near-UVA single-family neighborhoods like JPA, Venable, and Lewis Mountain.

"From this point forward, there won't be more single family houses turned into rentals" overflowing with students, says planning commission chair Kevin O'Halloran.

Instead, the "counterbalance," says O'Halloran, is to shift students into high-density university districts on 14th Street and JPA.

The city's zoning ordinance hasn't been overhauled since the early '70s. For the past three years, the planning commission has worked on revamping it, using a dozen different committees composed of residents, city planners, and developers.

While many involved citizens praise the process, many students are less enthusiastic.

"There was virtually no student representation and very little university representation in the process," says John Bailey, chair of the UVA Student Council housing committee. The first public forum, on December 10, came right in the middle of exams, he adds.

Bailey is concerned that the new restriction will make housing for students more expensive, and that the high-density district will affect the entire university community. He predicts the dismay of alumni coming back to the Rotunda only to gaze upon five- or seven-story buildings.

The reaction from landlords to loss of control over their property is mixed.

Wade Tremblay of Wade Apartments says all of his rentals will be in the so-called University District, where high-density housing is encouraged, so the three-person restriction has minimal impact on him. While Tremblay calls the process for revamping the zoning ordinance "forward thinking," he notes that limiting occupants can be a hardship on people who own property in single-family neighborhoods.

At CBS Rentals, Jim Stultz is on board with the new master plan over all and thinks the limits on occupancy combined with the creation of the high-density districts will eliminate student sprawl into low-density areas. "So it doesn't bother me that single-family neighborhoods decrease the number of unrelated adults to three," he says.

Overall, he believes the new ordinances will reduce the cost of housing because developers will be able to put more units on the same land. "There will be an economy of scale," he says. "There should be a product created that's less expensive than today because of land prices."

David Hughes doesn't agree. He owns two undeveloped lots on which he wants to build duplexes. "Building a four-bedroom duplex is the only economically feasible way I could do it," he says. A three-person occupancy definitely cuts into his investment.

Ivar Mawyer owns rental property near the university. Even the current four-person limit has discouraged him from buying one property off 14th Street because the rent would be too expensive. He echoes Hughes: "It wasn't economically feasible."

And then there are economics from the student point of view. Natalie Bucheimer's rent went up by approximately $100 when the City forced her fifth roommate to move out. "Now we have to split the bills four ways instead of five," she says.

Richard Spurzem at Neighborhood Properties says the limit reduces housing options while increasing the cost for lower-income tenants. "If you rent a place for $1,000 and split it four ways, obviously it's going to cost more if it's only split three ways."

Spurzem says he's concerned about the loss of property rights, and he questions City wisdom. "It's bizarre they keep doing this and wonder about affordable housing," he says.

Spurzem also points out that restrictions on the number of unrelated adults living in a residence have been used to target minorities such as Hispanics or gays.

Presumably, the new law would allow two married couples to share a house. But not if two couples who are "unrelated."

"What if two gay couples are sharing a house?" Spurzem asks.

The ACLU's Kent Willis brings up the same concern. He has opposed such restrictions in Fairfax and Loudoun, counties with large populations of Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

He also notes that the Fair Housing Act prohibits restrictions on the number of disabled adults living together in group homes.

However, while race, nationality, and disabilities are protected against discrimination, "students are not a protected class," says Willis.

"Ultimately the issue is the First Amendment right of free association," he says. "The government needs to show why it's doing it and why it's justified. This is the sort of thing often challenged."

Despite the challenges, the trend is sweeping college towns across the country as residents resist having their neighborhoods turn into so-called "student ghettos."

Charlottesville would join Boulder, Colorado, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, if it bans cohabitation by more than three unrelated adults. In 1999, East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University, limited the number of unrelated adults in newly licensed rentals to two.

(Tuscaloosa, in its crackdown on University of Alabama student slums, is also banning indoor furniture outdoors things like sofas on front porches– and is considering a ban on parking in front yards, USA Today reports.)

City Councilor Kevin Lynch hasn't entirely bought into the proposed limit of three adults. He cites fond memories from his undergrad days of landlady Tommy Goss, who rented out three rooms in her house.

"I think there's a difference between owner-occupied rentals versus renting a house to four college students," he says.

"And I'd ask older residents on fixed incomes whether this would be an attractive option for additional income," he adds.

A landlord, Lynch says he's not worried about loss of property rights.

"Anybody currently renting to four people can get nonconforming use," he says. "We're not taking anything away, just trying to discourage conversion of existing houses."

Lynch has larger concerns about whether the high-density university zones will create an incentive to knock down old homes without historic designations. "I'm not sure this ordinance is ready for prime time," he says.

Elizabeth Kutchai has lived on Valley Road for 29 years, and she thinks it's already too late to save her JPA-area neighborhood. She says it's already at 92 percent rentals, and existing units with four renters will be allowed as "nonconforming" property use.

And she says landlords trying to skirt the new occupancy limit can simply insist that only three tenants sign the lease.

Charlottesville zoning administrator Barbara Venerus has also heard of this tactic to get around the current four-person limit.

"It's a widespread rumor that landlords tell legal tenants on a lease they don't have a problem bringing in a fifth person," says Venerus.

And everyone agrees that the occupancy restriction isn't enforced unless someone complains. "Neighbors have to complain loudly and repeatedly," says Kutchai.

She should know. A single-family dwelling on her street was rented out to six soccer players. She complained. The house was then turned into a duplex, so now eight people can legally live there. "It was the worst possible outcome," she says.

That incident might be why Kutchai hasn't complained about the house next door to hers. Nine names are listed on the mailbox, and she says that cars are often parked in the front yard, and garbage is often strewn around the yard. "It's really not a lot of fun living next door to a lot of students," she says.

The house's owner says it's a duplex, which means eight adults legally can live there. Might there are more than eight?

"I don't barge in and count the number of heads," replies the landlord, who requested that his name not be used.

However, the same person owns a house beside the duplex on Valley Road that has seven names on the mailbox, according to Kutchai, as well as a basement apartment. City tax records do not show it as a multi-family residence. [CORRECTION: City records do show that it's a duplex.]

Neighborhood Development head Jim Tolbert says no one has been taken to court in the past year for breaking the law regarding four unrelated people in a house. "It's very difficult to enforce," he admits, "and we don't do a lot of enforcement of it, quite frankly."

If that's the case, what's to stop the city from selectively using the three adults rule to stop unpopular actions? Back in the '90s, city police unearthed Virginia's moribund sodomy statute to prosecute johns and prostitutes as felons in an effort to clean up West Main Street. While civil libertarians screamed, no one challenged the constitutionality of the law, and Virginia's sodomy statute, enacted in 1792, remains on the books.

Last year, the city received 11 complaints alleging more than four unrelateds, and, upon investigation, determined that just two of those complaints were founded. In 2001, 14 of 18 complaints were found, in fact, to be in compliance with the zoning ordinance.

The city currently is taking one of those to court, but that's the exception rather than the rule. "Our ultimate goal is compliance," says Venerus. "We want the violation fixed."

One of the few who have been caught exceeding the four-adult rule is Natalie Bucheimer. The city actually intervened in her living arrangements.

Bucheimer, her twin sister, and three other roommates found a house on JPA in the fall of 2001.

"We're all medical students and were brand new in town," Bucheimer recalls. "We had no idea it was a violation."

Neither, apparently, did her landlord, because all five signed the lease. The landlord, David Hughes, says, "One zoning administrator thought with brothers or sisters renting, it was okay to have three more."

"We were happily living together, and we weren't making noise," says Bucheimer. "We're good students and were busy with med school."

So how'd they get busted? Bucheimer believes it was her water bill. "We sent in a water bill to the city with five checks," she says.

Would the city really engage in cross-department snooping?

City treasurer Jennifer Brown doesn't rule it out.

"We do provide information of an investigative nature to other departments," says Brown.

Neighbor complaints are the usual way the City finds out about violations, says Venerus, but it's possible water bills are how Neighborhood Development Services got tipped off.

Hughes got a letter saying one of his tenants would have to move out within a month. Ultimately, the City agreed to let the illegal roommate remain until the end of the school year.

"The thing that doesn't make sense is that it's a five-bedroom house," says Bucheimer. "It was a bummer because one of our friends had to move out. And our rent went way up."

Another point of contention for Bucheimer is that she, too, knows of houses shared by as many as nine people. "I think the laws," she says, "need to be equitably enforced."

Housing activist Kevin Cox is similarly concerned. He filed a Freedom of Information Act asking the city for copies of relevant enforcement letters sent out by the zoning department since January 2000.

In response, the City provided notices sent since August 2001, and then added an interesting caveat to Cox in his FOIA pursuit. To gather information from January 2000 to August 2001 would take approximately 30 hours to search files and copy the relevant letters, the City estimated. At a cost of $18 an hour, that would cost over $500.

"If this is any indication of how organized city government is, we're all in trouble," laments Cox.

"The City can't enforce it now with four," says Ivar Mawyer. "How are they going to enforce it with three?"

One provision of the city's new zoning ordinance may help enforcement of nuisance violations, such as lawn parking and yard garbage. Zoning inspectors will be allowed to write tickets on the spot instead of the current cumbersome procedure that requires the city to send a letter to the property owner, who's then given seven days to correct the violation. The zoning inspector must follow up with a visit to verify the problem was handled.

The new plan also requires landlords of existing nonconforming rentals to register with the city. Zoning administrator Venerus says the key to enforcement is to have a good list of pre-existing nonconforming use houses. And if the use changes for two years, the property loses its nonconforming status.

Art Lichtenberger, president of the Lewis Mountain Neighborhood Association, defends his student neighbors. "By and large, the student population is affable and considerate and a pleasure to live next to," he says.

But living so close to the university is "a double-edged sword," says Lichtenberger. "We like students. We teach. You don't want to call the city and sic them on people."

Lichtenberger expects the occasional loud party. But when it's every night with a trail of beer bottles down the street the next day and eight cars parked in the yard, even tolerant neighbors feel taxed. "It's the few who have the high visibility," he notes.

Lichtenberger hopes for one result from a reduction in the number of unrelated adults to three. "I think with this change, the city may feel more obligated to enforce," he says.

But will it? Or rather, can it? Kutchai doubts that enforcement is possible without many more zoning inspectors.

At best, she hopes it will discourage landlords from buying up more houses in her neighborhood and turning them into rentals.