There has been a lot commentary recently about the Restricted Occupancy Overlay being considered by the College Station City Council. This “ROO” would allow neighborhoods to petition the city to limit the number of unrelated individuals who can live together in a single-family home to two — there would be no limits on the number of related people.
For a long time, residents of College Station have sought some ability to protect the character of their neighborhoods. If approved, the ROO would give residents that option. It is a modest, bottom-up response that is long overdue.
If approved, homeowners in a phase of a subdivision would be able to petition to change the occupancy limit from the current level of not more than four unrelated persons to not more than two, thereby stabilizing single-family neighborhoods from converting to high-occupancy rental areas.
If a neighborhood is able to adopt the ROO, it will mean the families living there can lay down roots with the certainty that their neighborhood will remain a place for families, retirees and young professionals. The ROO would, therefore, slow the emptying out of our city’s center of families and create more economic incentives for appropriate high-density housing for students near campus.
There has been a lot of misinformation about the ROO and College Station Association of Neighborhoods, and it is important to set the record straight.
First, it is critical to understand that the ROO is not a panacea and would not turn back the clock. Neighborhoods that lost their single-family character years ago are very unlikely to obtain enough signatures to get a ROO. This is unfortunately true for much of the historic Southside neighborhood and for what is left of the African American communities near campus that have been devastated by high-occupancy rentals.
Second, the ROO would have no immediate effect on the supply of rental housing. According to the A&M Real Estate Center, about 60% of College Station’s single-family residences are rentals. Given the guidance of the city council at the March 11 meeting, it appears that home ow
ners who now are renting to more than two unrelated persons will be able to continue to do so. Hence, the ROO would not affect the neighborhoods dominated by high-occupancy rentals and would not affect homes being used for high-occupancy student rentals. For the same reason, it is extremely unlikely that the ROO would have any effect on low-income housing.
Third, many believe that this is about code enforcement issues: noise, trash and parking. This misses the point. Homeowners living near campus chose to live in a part of town where students are prevalent. That has benefits, and an occasional rowdy party in exchange for a diverse, vibrant neighborhood and proximity to the center of town is well worth it. The problem comes when there is a sense that a neighborhood is converting to 100% student rentals. Once that tipping point is reached, property values skyrocket, families flee and new families do not move in. The ROO would make it possible for a few neighborhoods to avoid that tipping point.
Fourth, the ROO is legal. The city attorney has vetted the ROO proposal and a similar ordinance has been in place since 2006 in Bryan. Occupancy limits are common in university towns — this ROO would be less restrictive than policies in many other cities in Texas and around the country. The ROO would build on the recently adopted new definition of family and relationships that was approved only a few months ago. If the current ordinance is legal, it stands to reason that the new ordinance would be legal too.
So what would the ROO do? It would pave a way for neighborhoods that still are dominated by families, retirees and young professionals to retain their character.
The neighborhoods that would benefit most from this are those with homes that are moderately priced — making them ideal targets for investors looking to cram four individuals into a single-family home — but have not been overrun by that pressure to date. There is a shortage of this type of housing in College Station. Our city council is right to be concerned and right to do something about it.
If you watch news reporting on the ROO, many who have spoken against the ROO are people who make their living from real estate and fear any threat to unimpeded access to the next dollar in gain, even when that comes at the cost of those who live next door. Many of those speakers live in neighborhoods which already are protected and never will have more than two unrelated — much less four — living anywhere near them.
On the other hand, those who have spoken in support of the ROO are just ordinary people who live here, people who love their homes and who are concerned about their threatened neighborhoods.
Throughout the debates on the ROO many derogatory references have been made about CSAN, the College Station Association of Neighborhoods. CSAN is a political action committee and has advocated for the ROO. But it is important to remember that CSAN is not the only PAC operating in College Station, and we’re certainly not the largest. In the recent city election, the Texas Real Estate PAC made direct contributions to candidates totaling $15,000 and sent out six mailings in support of council candidates. It spent probably five to 10 times more than CSAN in that election. CSAN, on the other hand, does not make any direct contributions to candidates, and its sole focus is to protect neighborhoods.
CSAN may be a political action committee, but it is a PAC that advocates for those who live here, not just those who invest here. If the ROO is approved and if CSAN played a role in helping that happen, we would be extremely proud of that accomplishment.
But mostly we would applaud a College Station City Council that finally is attempting to do the right thing for neighborhoods — and for the good our city as a whole.
Richard Woodward is president of the College Station Association of Neighborhoods.