The Cavalier Daily
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Law kicks student interest to curb

LIKE MOST college towns, Charlottesville exists largely because of students. Students support the city economically, and we're the reason most Charlottesville businesses thrive.

The city, however, does not allow students to support and benefit from the city's real estate business. A zoning ordinance prohibits more than four unrelated persons from living in the same residence. Charlottesville Planning Manager Ron Higgins said in a personal interview that the ordinance was intended to maintain population density at a reasonable level by limiting student groups at a size roughly equal to that of families.

The law's effects are limited by the fact that it only affects residences built after 1984, and that groups such as fraternities and sororities can apply for special permits to have larger residences. But it does affect the type of housing currently available to students and will affect the kind of housing available in the future.

The law encourages real-estate developers to use any given amount of space to build small housing units instead of larger ones - they make more money this way. In the space it takes to build one large apartment, developers could build two smaller ones. Two small apartments usually bring in more rent because two apartments will have a second set of common rooms and appliances that one apartment won't have. Two living rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, washers, dryers and stoves cost money to build and maintain.

This is one of the main reasons that college students are likely to want to share living quarters with more than three friends. Students save a significant amount of money by living together in larger rather than smaller groups, because pooling resources makes living off-Grounds cheaper.

The ordinance was designed to limit population density. But it works against students' efforts to make living off-Grounds economical. It also does little to check overcrowding.

First, the ordinance ignores the size of the housing unit. As a result, a five-bedroom house with five students would be illegal, even though it has a less dense population compared to a legal two-bedroom apartment with four students - two per bedroom.

Secondly, the four-person limitation is too low. It is common in the University system for two students to share a bedroom - something that seldom creates an overcrowded living situation. For example, some Lambeth and Bice apartments have six students in three bedrooms. But this living arrangement is illegal off-Grounds.

Since students can't save money by sharing an apartment with more people, they'll have to save money by sharing a bedroom with another student if they want to be able to afford to live off-Grounds. Under the ordinance, this would be illegal in any housing unit with more than two bedrooms, thus discouraging developers from building larger student housing.

The effect of this is to increase population density. More students in two-bedroom double occupancy apartments instead of larger, single occupancy apartments means more people per unit area, not less. If the ordinance used the number of bedrooms or the number of square feet instead, it would be more successful in keeping a check on overcrowding. This would target students who cram too many people into an apartment, instead of students who save money by pooling resources and sharing a larger apartment. Higgins said that such methods were not chosen when the ordinance was written because they would be too difficult to enforce.

The ordinance, then, doesn't effectively check student overcrowding. It does, however, do a good job of discouraging students from living off-Grounds. It's easy to see why this may be a desirable effect of the rule, even if it wasn't intended.

Students admittedly are not desirable neighbors. We are extremely hard on property, loud, keep irregular hours, and for the most part, don't put a lot of effort into property upkeep. All of these things mean that having students in a neighborhood potentially can reduce property values. Higgins explained that when more than four students live in a house or apartment, they begin to be "a burden on the neighborhood and community."

For these reasons, Charlottesville homeowners - who Higgins called the "heart and soul of this community" - have an interest in keeping large groups of students out of their neighborhood.

Higgins stated that students are also extremely important to this community, and said he didn't think the issue had to be one of students versus homeowners. But even if the city didn't intend to hurt students by this policy, their actions show that they are more committed to the interests of homeowners than students.

This commitment to homeowners makes political sense - property owners vote in Charlottesville, while most students don't. But part of being a good college town means understanding - even accommodating - student interests, even if they conflict with the interests of the rest of the community.

The ordinance should make us question whether Charlottesville is a good college town. It demonstrates that the city gives the interests of homeowners first priority - not those of the students who make its existence possible.

Bryan Maxwell's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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