College Neighbors Speak Up, Enact Policies to Avoid 'Student Slum'

Carolyn Steptoe, who lives near Catholic University, says her community is "absolutely at wits' end" over instances of student neighbors' unruliness.
Carolyn Steptoe, who lives near Catholic University, says her community is "absolutely at wits' end" over instances of student neighbors' unruliness. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Jenna Johnson and Martin Ricard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 17, 2009

Each August, moving vans and pickups roll into the neighborhoods surrounding college campuses, carrying futons, boxes and mini-fridges. As move-in season kicks off, homeowners try to determine how their quiet streets will be transformed by hordes of students.

"Even if you see them hauling in a keg the first weekend, maybe that will be their one party of the year," said Jennifer Altemus, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. "Still, I wouldn't think that's a great sign."

For most college students looking to live in or near the District, the cheapest option is to rent a house with a large group of friends, packing in as many people as possible. Living off campus also frees students from the adult supervision of the dorms, but they quickly learn that their new neighbors have rules, too -- and enforcement tactics that have been honed on decades of young neighbors.

This year, residents living near Georgetown University plan to hang signs on the doors of student renters, informing them of the rules about garbage collection and noise. On Tuesday, the College Park City Council narrowly voted to continue rent control on single-family houses to help University of Maryland students and others find cheap housing and discourage landlords from buying more houses. And residents of the Brookland neighborhood near Catholic University have pressured police to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for disorderly conduct.

At a community meeting last month, 5th Police District Cmdr. Lamar Greene said officers will measure noise levels when called to student homes and make arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct if necessary. Brookland residents have identified houses rented by Catholic University students, checked landlord licenses and reported those not in compliance.

"My community is absolutely at wits' end about this," Carolyn Steptoe, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member.

Craig Parker, associate vice president for community and government relations for CUA, said that the university makes clear its expectations for students living off-campus. University policy includes sanctions for students involved in disruptive behavior in off-campus housing and urges neighbors to call the police when there are problems.

Although neighbors often have a point, sometimes they're simply "nitpicking on small issues," said CUA student Ryan Winn, chairman of the student government's student life committee.

"Students are residents," said Winn, 20, a junior political science and pre-law student. "They have rights, too."

Stuck in the middle are university officials who want to stick up for the rights of their students but also keep peace with the neighbors who can have immense influence on zoning requests and construction plans, said David Clurman, president of the Mid-Atlantic Association of College and University Housing Officers.

"Sometimes it's just people being hyper-sensitive, and sometimes it's the students being out of control. You just have to find a balance," said Clurman, assistant director of residential education at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

A public hearing in College Park about rent control last month at times turned into a debate about where U-Md. students should live. Some students questioned why rent control applies only to single-family houses and not apartment complexes, dorms and other on-campus housing, which can cost hundreds of dollars more each month.

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