By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
The five residents of 2466 Garfield Ave. don’t park in the street. They don’t leave trash on their lawn or play loud music, they say.
Their landlord says neighbors have not complained about the five ACU students’ stay in the Hillcrest area north of campus.
“We’re not up late, we don’t throw parties, we don’t make noise,” said Adam Powell, one of the residents. “We just have five people in the house.”
And that has made all the difference to the city of Abilene, which warned the house’s landlord to evict two of the students in 10 days or face $2,000-per-day fines.
“It was really a shock to us,” said Powell, senior business management major from Coppell.
Powell and his roommates reside in one of several properties in the area that the city is investigating under an ordinance that prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together.
In all, said Jeff Armstrong, Abilene’s development services manager, the city is investigating 12 complaints, nine of which have come from neighborhoods surrounding the university.
If a violation is confirmed, Armstrong said the official notice threatening thousands of dollars in fines serves as an attention-getter for landlords.
“Ten days is a standard amount of time for a housing violation,” he said. “We try to help people and work with people.”
One of Powell’s roommates-Tommy Butler, senior youth and family ministry major from Houston-called Armstrong and worked out a post-finals deadline for two of the roommates to move out.
A debate over off-campus student housing resurfaced this semester after nearly 20 years when the city council considered and unanimously rejected an ordinance that would have raised the limit on unrelated people in one house from three to four.
The Oct. 23 council decision, 7-0 in favor of maintaining the stricter limit, was based on overwhelming public support for tighter regulation of student housing, Mayor Grady Barr said.
Of 153 phone calls, e-mails and petition signatures received, Barr said just two supported a raised limit.
“We never did hear a student say why we should change it,” Barr told the Optimist. “All we did was vote not to make a change.”
The landlord, a university professor who asked that her name not be used, said monthly rents would likely rise, perhaps by as much as $120 per person.
Barr said he does not want the council’s decision to be interpreted as anti-student, praising the Abilene universities and their collective effect on the city’s economy.
“We know what a great job the universities do for the city of Abilene,” Barr said. “But you can’t not listen to the people in the neighborhoods who feel discriminated against when we bring [a possible change] up.”
The city has not received any recent complaints about students at Hardin-Simmons or McMurry universities, Armstrong said. Both universities are smaller than ACU, however, with tighter on-campus housing requirements.
For example, McMurry only allows seniors or those over 21 years old to live off campus. Only 581 students live off its campus at Sayles Boulevard and South 14th Street. About 1,200 ACU students live off campus, however.
Hardin-Simmons officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“We don’t get near the same number of complaints from Hardin-Simmons or McMurry as we do from around the ACU area,” Armstrong said.
One neighborhood especially vocal in its complaining has been the Hillcrest area, which includes Garfield Avenue. The streets surrounding Hillcrest Church of Christ house many ACU students, and neighbors struck back at what they saw to be noisy, inconsiderate behavior.
In a flier posted on every door in the neighborhood in September, an anonymous neighbor complained of late-night drinking, cars parked up and down the streets and unkempt lawns, citing specific examples such as a Homecoming float coffin and Sing Song props left in student-leased yards.
“At the beginning of summer, an effort was begun to report all house where the [housing] occupant limit was obviously being violated …” the letter said. “This effort will continue through all available channels,” including legal action.
Of the nine ACU-related investigations, Armstrong said seven of them are houses in the Hillcrest neighborhood.
The city keeps confidential the name of anyone who reports a house for breaking the limit, Armstrong said, for fear of retaliation. Powell said he does not know beyond speculation who pointed out their house.
History of contention
Contentious housing debates flared in 1984, when the city voted to lower the unrelated persons limit from five to three. Then, the city council postponed a vote three times as students and local homeowners packed the council chambers to argue their cases.
But on Oct. 23, about 25 homeowners attended to oppose raising the limit; no students presented their case.
“I think it would have made a difference, certainly” if students had showed up, Barr said. “That’s not what we heard from.”
Meanwhile, the five students have begun preparations for life without two extra people to pay the bills, which Powell estimated would go up about $40 a person. The three remaining roommates-Butler, Powell and Patrick Hays, senior art major from Austin-have decided to forego a house phone next semester to offset the extra expense.
“If they start enforcing the ‘three to a house’ rule, it’s going to cause a lot of problems,” Powell said. “I just can’t believe we’re the ones that got hit for it.”