“We had to remove any indication that we were living there—I didn’t feel like a criminal, but at the same time I felt the urgency to hide from the law.”
Harrison Lyman, now a UMW senior, was living in a house with four roommates near campus for nine months before he ran into trouble with city authorities. He and his roommates were in violation of a Fredericksburg zoning regulation with serious penalties, dubbed the “brothel” rule.
In 1985, Fredericksburg lawmakers issued an edict stating that no more than one family or group of more than three unrelated persons could legally occupy a single household. This ordinance, which remains in effect, was originally intended to maintain public health and despite its nickname, has nothing to do with prostitution.
Lyman knew that having more than two roommates was illegal in Fredericksburg, but he wanted to save money and was willing to take the risk. Per semester, he estimated that he saved over $1,000 by living with four roommates instead of just two roommates.
In March 2010, Lyman’s neighbor was discussing parking arrangements with a police officer when the neighbor inadvertently revealed that there were more than three people living in the house next door.
The next day a policeman was at Lyman’s front door to discuss the parking situation and hinted that the city coordinator might be stopping by because he was concerned about the number of people living in the house.
“We knew in full what he was talking about and what we had to do,” Lyman said, and they quickly made two of their five rooms look unoccupied. “Everything from my toothbrush to my bed in my room had to be completely removed and rearranged,” he said. “For a week I had to sleep [outside] of the house. My mattress had to be stored in one of my roommate’s rooms, which was turned into a storage room to make it look like he was not living there [either].”
According to the Fredericksburg’s Office of Planning and Community Development website, Lyman could have paid an initial fine of up to $2,000 for violating this law. Had he not paid on time, the fine could have escalated up to $7,500.
Fortunately for Lyman and his roommates, the city coordinator never came to check on the house. Nevertheless, Lyman no longer occupies the residence.
UMW Geography Professor and Rappahannock County zoning administrator John McCarthy said that nearly every jurisdiction with which he is acquainted has some provisions governing what constitutes a ‘family’ and the number of persons that can reside within a single dwelling. Provinces vary in their regulations, but only slightly. “This is an issue in almost every college community in the country,” he explained.
Fredericksburg’s zoning ordinance, however, is unique in that violation of it results in a punishment far greater than any of the city’s other zoning ordinances. These restrictions limit the supply of affordable housing, but according to McCarthy, they are necessary.
“[It’s] the same for zoning codes as it is with motor vehicle violations. Without a strict penalty, violations would be common,” he said.
In the past few decades the population in Fredericksburg has increased. McCarthy said this is because it’s become an increasingly appealing place to live. Its development in combination with UMW’s growth and successes has also heightened “town-gown tensions.”
According to Fredericksburg’s Office of Planning and Community Development’s website, the city has lately received an increasing number of complaints concerning overcrowding within households.
The website states one of the office’s objectives as “healthy surroundings for family life” within residential areas.
The office describes overcrowding as a threat to public safety as it endangers members of a household by increasing the risk of spreading disease, by endangering the mental health of occupants due to lack of privacy, by restricting play and exercise areas for children, and by increasing fatigue due to more exhaustive household chores.
McCarthy acknowledged that overcrowding and safety issues relating to fire safety, lack of adequate water and sewage capacity, and conflicts over parking space are some of the principal reasons that regulations like this exist, but he added that dwellings with multiple occupants are perceived to negatively impact property values on housing units.
He explained that one of the main reasons for having zoning regulations is to protect property values. “Governing bodies are often very sensitive to concerns expressed by neighborhood residents that a given use ‘drives down the property values,’” he said.
Though regulations like these limit the city’s supply of affordable housing, Raymond Ocel, Fredericksburg’s Director of Planning and Community Development and zoning administrator, said that there’s no reason for students to worry.
“Approximately two-thirds of residences in [this] city are rental units—I’m sure there is all kinds of housing [in which] people can find accommodations,” he said.
But some students, like Lyman, remain unconvinced. “We are college students trying to better our futures,” he said. “That’s the reason we were packed into that house. We are here for an education—we shouldn’t have to be criminals.”