The Abilene city council will hold a public hearing Thursday in which it will decide whether to pass an amendment raising the maximum number of unrelated people living in one house to four.
The text of the amendment reads as follows: “One or more persons occupying a single dwelling unit provided that unless all members are related by blood or marriage, no such family shall contain over four persons.”
If approved, the decision should come as a delight to ACU students living off campus, many of whom already live in houses with four or more roommates. However, considering the expected wealth of college roommate houses in Abilene, a more logical solution calls for the city to do away with the frivolous cap on student occupants altogether.
The solution is logical because the current city ordinance has been violated and not enforced for years and it will continue that way for years to come. Were the ordinance actually enforced, about 40-50 houses with ACU roommates would have to be broken up-and that’s a low estimate.
But that ordinance will never be enforced, some students argue. Unfortunately, neighborhood residents have gotten proactive, and likelihood of enforcement has grown.
In late August, an anonymous letter was delivered to all property owners in the Hillcrest Neighborhood-a residential area including Madison Avenue, Garfield Avenue and Campus Court north of Ambler Avenue. In bold type at the top of the notice a statement reads: “This is an announcement of the current effort to reclaim the Hillcrest neighborhood as a single-family residential neighborhood.”
The opening statement in itself is preposterous. It leads the reader to believe that this specific neighborhood-in which every house is less than a half-mile away from the ACU campus-should contain no houses with student roommates.
“I kind of laughed about it,” said Kenli Edwards, junior exercise science major from Abilene, who lives on Madison with four roommates. “I thought it was dumb that these people lived so close to ACU and expected no ACU people to live there.”
The letter goes on to say that more than 10 homes in the neighborhood are in violation of the ordinance and the increase in students has forced the neighborhood to deal with 50 additional vehicles traveling through the streets, unkempt lawns, abandoned cars and even a coffin in a yard.
At least one neighborhood property renter backs these claims.
“That’s all true,” said Robert Campbell, ACU graduate and Madison Avenue resident of 14 years. “I know from firsthand experience; we have ACU students living on both sides of us, and we’ve had some problems.”
Campbell insists he has no problem with college students living in the neighborhood, as long as they can live there responsibly. Still, he thinks the ordinance should cap the number of unrelated residents at three.
“That’s the only leverage we have,” he said. “It’s the same thing every year: I have to go out late at night and tell them to be quiet. If it keeps up, then I start calling the police. If it still keeps up and I threaten to have the city evict them, then that usually gets their attention.”
Another legitimate argument from property owners is depreciation of property due to the generally poor condition of college homes. Campbell said he has became irritated at one point when college-aged neighbors used their driveway to work on cars and didn’t mow their lawn regularly.
But Dr. Marion Cawood, professor of music and owner of seven rental houses in the Hillcrest neighborhood, has a quick fix for the problem.
“Economic value shouldn’t hurt the neighbors if landlords keep up with their rental property,” she said. “I’ve always kept up with mowing lawns and painting, things like that. We’ve even replaced roofs after hailstorms. The landlords should fix what needs fixing because the students and neighbors deserve that.”
Complaints like this don’t generate from the Westheimer neighborhood because most-if not all-houses and apartments in that area are rented by college students. Since neighborhoods like Westheimer don’t exist in great numbers in Abilene, students are forced to live in family-based neighborhoods like Hillcrest where they won’t be as well received. Families are not to blame for the expansion, but students aren’t either.
Also, “it keeps the community young,” said Cawood. “Madison was getting too old, anyway.”
Before 1984, the city allowed five unrelated people to live together, but it cut the number to three and the ordinance has stood ever since. Were the ordinance enforced, however, more local college houses would likely form and the problems would remain the same.
“It’s a frivolous law to have,” said Matt Foster, senior youth and family ministry major from Westminster, Colo., who rents a house on Garfield with six roommates. “For most college kids, the cost of rent is too extreme for just three or four roommates to handle on their own.”
Adam Brennen, senior youth and family ministry major from Amarillo, knows this all too well. He and his three roommates were ready to move into their newly purchased house on Cloverleaf Lane in 2002 when he received a letter from a lawyer in June. The lawyer claimed that Brennen and his potential roommates would violate that subdivision’s clause of no more than two unrelated people living together and would be sued if they all moved in. As a result, two of the roommates had to find housing on short notice, and Brennen and his lone roommate have had to split the $500 monthly rent by themselves.
“I was hacked off,” Brennen said. “We move in right by the school, and they were going to sue us?”
Of course, lawsuits are extreme punishments for students in violation. Last month, Abilene development services manager Jeff Armstrong told the Optimist that violation of the ordinance is a class C misdemeanor, punishable by as much as a $2,000 fine.
But if one must be punished, all must be punished, and the impunity would be immeasurable. Thus, the law that won’t likely be enforced needs major re-evaluation.