The College Station City Council is considering an ordinance that would create a restricted occupancy overlay or ROO. This legislation would allow neighborhoods to petition the city to limit the number of unrelated individuals who can live together in a home to only two persons (regardless of the home’s size or number of bedrooms). A majority of the council seemingly agrees such a petition would need only minimal support (50% plus one of the subject property owners) to proceed for consideration.
Proponents, led by the political action committee CSAN, argue this ordinance is a panacea for concerned residents: preserving older neighborhoods for families, lowering property values and ending code enforcement issues. While sprinkled with mentions of the “missing middle” and other public policy buzzwords, the discussion is dominated by an animus toward college students in neighborhoods close to the Texas A&M University campus.
This community’s housing issues are far more complicated than the ROO supporters indicate and, unfortunately, the ROO would do nothing to address them. In fact, the draft ordinance will be more destructive than helpful for many reasons.
First, the ROO would not address the behavioral problems of student renters that are the primary concern of full-time residents. College Station has prohibited more than four unrelated individuals from living together since its incorporation in 1938. Nevertheless, this effort demonstrates problems persist.
Occupancy restrictions do not prevent noise, parties, poor lawn care, illegal parking or minor-in-possession violations. In fact, of the occupancy-related code enforcement complaints filed during the past decade, the fewest have been filed for purported violations of the no-more-than-four rule. People do not care who lives in a home. They care about how they behave in it.
Instead of further restricting occupancy, the city should focus on educating new residents and code enforcement. The data support this thesis.
Residents filed thousands of code enforcement complaints during fiscal year 2020, and city staff was successful in achieving 99% compliance. More than 90% of these violations were resolved on the first contact with the violator. The city has rules and resources to address behavioral problems, and these efforts are working.
Even if the ROO could address these behavioral issues, it could not reverse the trend of older neighborhoods in close proximity to the A&M campus. These areas always have been eclectic and diverse, and they have been majority rental-occupied for more than two decades. A historic lack of on-campus housing options and a rapidly expanding student body resulted in students moving to these neighborhoods beginning in the 1990s. For nearly a generation, students have wanted to live near campus (for convenience) and to be around other students.
As students began to dominate these neighborhoods, homeowners tastes also began to change. Older homes and neighborhoods lack the amenities modern homeowners demand. They gravitated away from these areas and students sought them out as a natural progression of urban development. Artificially altering this shift by prohibiting occupancy would not result in families returning, but instead would ossify key areas in the City’s center, leading to blight and decay.
Rather than reversing this trend, the ROO would disturb other neighborhoods in the community and result in urban sprawl.
An overlay would reduce density in areas that need it and drive student renters farther from campus and into other established neighborhoods.
This diaspora further would strain city infrastructure, increase traffic, heighten environmental impacts and potentially create issues in established, majority owner-occupied neighborhoods such as Pebble Creek, Castlegate and Woodcreek. Worse yet, such restrictions could lead to further sprawl with its negative consequences.
It is ill-advised to disturb these neighborhoods in which homeowners made informed choices or trigger unwanted sprawl in an attempt to remake campus-adjacent, student-dominated areas that need increased density.
In addition to its failure to address problems and cause unintended consequences, the ROO also would be unenforceable. Since 2017, the city has taken legal action in only six instances for violations of the no-more-than-four ordinance (and in every incidence only because the defendant admitted violating the ordinance). The city does not possess the ability or resources to determine identity or consanguinity, and doing so does not improve anyone’s neighborhood. Such efforts would be counterproductive to neighborhood harmony and unity.
Such invasions of privacy cause division and suspicion among neighbors. The city should not weaponize code enforcement for use by disgruntled members of the community. Instead, the city should encourage and enforce good behavior among all residents.
Everyone wants good neighborhoods, and we want to be hospitable hosts for Texas A&M and its student body. Both good neighborhoods and the university are the basis of our wonderful community and our continued economic growth and viability.
Restricting occupancy, however, does not achieve these goals. Instead, we should focus on education and behavioral code enforcement. We should ensure there is sufficient single-family housing inventory so all young professionals, families and retired couples have desirable places to live.
We need to protect existing majority owner-occupied neighborhoods by making it possible for students to live in close proximity to campus and one another with a menu of housing options.
These goals are not mutually exclusive, and none present any negative consequences to our community.
A restricted occupancy overlay, unfortunately, addresses none of these concerns and would only further divide and harm this community.
Jeremy Osborne is a College Station business leader.