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Rules Trail Raucous Students Off-Campus
Colleges, Neighbors Seek a New Peace

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.

"The only reason I can afford to live in College Park is because I'm able to rent a single-family house with a group of people," said Bob Hayes, a junior mechanical engineering major.

More than a dozen landlords spoke, angrily accusing the city of being "anti-student" by trying to run college group houses out of business.

"This is a college town," said Ken Blumenstock, a landlord who lives in Bethesda. "It is normal for students to live in the neighborhoods."

Adele Ellis, who lives near campus with her husband, a U-Md. professor, said rent control helps prevent landlords from getting rich while students live in substandard or unsafe housing.

"We are not anti-student. It is not a matter of throwing students out of the neighborhood," she said at the hearing. "It is a matter of addressing the problems that arise when a number of students in an area becomes overwhelming. It is the difference between a mixed neighborhood and a student slum that is the concern."

In 2004, a GU business student was killed in a rowhouse fire caused by faulty electrical wiring.

"Housing is at such a premium that students" often put up with unsafe living conditions, said Altemus, of the neighborhood association. "And they are paying $6,000 or $7,000 a month for these places."

In addition to student safety, universities have other incentives to keep neighborhood residents happy.

In 2001, the D.C. zoning board refused to allow George Washington University to increase enrollment or launch any new construction projects until at least 70 percent of students lived on-campus. At the time, only about half of the school's undergraduates lived on-campus. Today, 73 percent do.

That same year, the zoning board also refused to approve Georgetown's 10-year construction plan or allow the school to accept more students until school officials gained control of off-campus students.

The school started a 24-hour hotline that neighbors can call to report problems, created its own security team to patrol neighborhoods and punished students who broke laws or violated the student code of conduct while living off campus.

Both GWU and GU have also formed committees of university officials, students and neighbors to discuss town-gown issues and added lessons on being a good neighbor to their orientation programs. GWU provides students moving off campus with a handbook that spells out their rights as tenants, offers suggestions on finding a place and includes a section titled, "Don't let your right to party overshadow your responsibility to your neighbors."

This fall, GU is opening its own row of townhouses on 36th Street NW, called Magis Row. Each house will have four students, a faculty or staff adviser and a theme, such as living green or redefining the hip-hop movement. The houses are meant to be "the best of both worlds" for students who want to live in a house but still have ties to campus, said Jeanne Lord, associate vice president for student affairs.

Students must have high grades and clean records to live in the "coveted houses," so Lord expects that they will be tame, role-model neighbors -- just what the university needs as it prepares to again submit a 10-year plan to the zoning board in 2011.

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