Cities crack down on student 'slums'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A faded United States flag hangs from the peeling front porch of the "Blue Barn," a well-known residence near the North Carolina State University campus where a punk band called Corrosion of Conformity once made its home.

Inside, the lights glow dimly, and tiny heaters keep the bedrooms warm. Empty bottles, an old upright bass, and abandoned artwork serve as reminders of late-night jam sessions and noisy student get-togethers.

As in hundreds of other such domiciles scattered around the western cusp of Raleigh, the comfort of home lies not in leather couches and petit fours, but in mismatched chairs, cheap rent, and peanut butter and jelly "sammies."

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No one knows how much longer this tradition will be able to survive, though. Raleigh and other university towns are getting ready to yank the welcome mat as "student ghettoes" spring up in once-quiet cul-de-sacs - the result of a decade of college enrollments that far outpace dorm construction.

Plans are under way across the country to put stricter codes on houses where unrelated people live together, a move that some say could mean eviction of students on the basis of their lifestyle.

For many residents of these cheap houses, the debate is as much about the right to live as you please as it is about keeping the neighborhood peace.

"This is what you would call social engineering," says Peter Eichenberger, a former North Carolina State student and now an indie journalist living in the Blue Barn. "All I want is a place for cheap where I can write and not have to work too hard, but now they're starting to try to manipulate the demographics of the city based on how you live your life."

The sheer numbers of these new academic neighborhoods is what's causing the tension. Once the number of boarding houses starts to increase in a given neighborhood, it's like gentrification in reverse, some say. In many towns, it's led to established families moving out rather than dealing with their collegiate neighbors' often messy and noisy ways, and the resulting drop in property values.

"It's a huge issue: There isn't a lot of student-oriented housing being built and enrollment is just increasing," says Lanier Blum, the director of the Regional Center for Affordable Living in Durham, N.C. "This ... has put a lot more pressure on neighborhoods."

Matt Spence, a member of the North Carolina University student government board, says proponents of the new code want students to demand more campus housing. But the university already provides 28 percent of its students with housing, he says, placing it at the national average.

"[The proposal is] basically trying to limit our choices as to where we can live and force us into massive student-housing complexes, which are more expensive," Mr. Spence says.

There's a similar space crunch near the picturesque campus of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, a stone's throw from Lake Michigan.

Situated in a wealthy neighborhood of turn-of-the century homes, the school now has nearly 7,000 18- to 23-year-olds living off campus. Some of them have scared off families by moving into large houses and setting them up as lairs of late-night cramming. As with many urban universities, the campus is "landlocked," college officials say, meaning there isn't enough room to build new dorms.

These "town-gown" disputes are part of an age-old dilemma that often pits adults and their desire for order against unfettered gaggles of young people seeking the company of other young people.

"When grownups buy a house, they have neighbors who they rely on for things like watching kids or picking up the newspaper when they're on vacation," says Bill Mayrl, a sociology professor and former student-affairs dean at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Students, on the other hand, have no anchor, no need for community except for a place to sleep.... You've got two forces that, each for their own reason, can't budge in some sense."

Some universities are trying to ease the tension by giving special courses to freshmen who plan to live off-campus - to train them in community etiquette. Other schools give out student directories to police, so they can cross-check addresses. At the same time, given the untethered nature of many young people, it can be difficult to prove exactly who's a resident and who's a guest. Some inspectors have even taken to counting toothbrushes to calculate the number of roomies.

Here in Raleigh, a growing number of community activists are not content to see their neighborhoods, in their view, go downhill. The proposed law, which the city council will consider in January, would put new restrictions on homes with more than two unrelated people living together by making landlords more liable for living conditions.

Other cities have already gone this route with some success. East Lansing, Mich., and Chapel Hill, N.C., have cracked down on how many students can live together off campus, and Winston-Salem, N.C., is considering a similar law. East Lansing, for example, has stopped further conversions of single-family homes into student rooming houses.

"I find it difficult to tell people how to live, but at the same time it's incumbent upon people not to create a nuisance or to diminish the quality of life for their neighbors," says Tom Slater, the chairman of the Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council. "The idea is to have some regulation that can be enforced, so that these multi-tenant residences can be policed, corrected, or closed."

Critics say these laws, in effect, open up "selective prosecution" of lifestyles that may not jibe with some people's idea of what a neighborhood should be.

"We're not advocating that [students] throw massive parties or park 10 cars on the street or [forget to] cut their lawn," Spence says. "We're just trying to protect the students who are not causing problems."

Areas like Raleigh, though, face a steady rise in the number of occupants per room, thanks to high housing prices and stagnant wages. But with so many of these homes and the transient nature of many residents, it can be difficult to carry out restrictions fairly, experts say.

As for Mr. Eichenberger, the Blue Barn resident, he's considering marriage to one of his roommates in order to keep a roof over his head if Raleigh passes the law. Or, he says, he may have to find a cheap rooming house outside the city limits. His last resort, he says, would be to go the route of one North Carolina State student who set up a cot and a drafting table inside one of the school's abandoned underground steam-conduit pipes.

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