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Stealth Dorms Move In and Families Move Out

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Mike Wong bought his home in Central Austin in 1996, a time, he said, when there were families in the neighborhood and kids on the street. But now, the families have moved out, and students have moved in.

So-called stealth dorms are cropping up in neighborhoods in college towns across Texas. Usually built on single-family zoned lots, students crowd into the spaces with up to six or more people at a time.

Homeowners worry the stealth dorms change the character of their neighborhoods and bring myriad problems, including limited parking, excessive noise and trash, which they claim can decrease property value. The students argue that as the cost of attending college rises, living in a residential area is sometimes cheaper than living on campus and it makes them feel like they are living at home.

As more stealth dorms arise, cities are adopting ordinances to reduce the number of students who can live in residential areas. Now, residents in Austin and College Station, which house the state's flagship universities, are petitioning the city governments to reduce occupancy limits in certain areas.

Wong said a number of students have lived in his neighborhood over the years. Some students hosted bands that would practice loudly in the house.

“There is the insurmountable fact that the lifestyle and needs of students and families are quite different and may be incompatible,” said Wong, the president of the Northfield Neighborhood Association.

Wong wants the city of Austin to reduce the number of unrelated people who can live together in a single-family home from six to four. He is not alone. On Thursday, neighbors in College Station made a similar request of their city council, which could vote next month on the issue.

Stealth dorms are not an unfamiliar problem in Texas, where there are 38 public universities and 50 community college districts. They are more common in college towns, and some cities have already created an occupancy limit, reducing the number of unrelated people who can live together.

Austin — home to the University of Texas, St. Edward's University, Concordia University, Huston-Tillotson University and Austin Community College — has one of the highest occupancy limits in the state, allowing as many as six unrelated people to live in a single-family residence. College Station, home to Texas A&M University, allows up to four unrelated people to live under one roof.

San Marcos and Lubbock, which house Texas State University and Texas Tech University, respectively, only allow up to two unrelated people to live in a residential home. Other college towns, such as Arlington, do not limit the number of unrelated people who can live together.

In College Station, social worker Angela Barr lives in a residential area about a mile from the main Texas A&M University campus. Barr said many families who used to live in the neighborhood told her they moved because they could not take the loud parties and lack of consideration by student renters.

Barr said there were many cases of public urination and pranks in her neighborhood. One time, a fire broke out in another neighbor's home and the fire department could not get there because there were too many cars parked on the street, she said.

“We don’t condemn them for their lifestyles, because we were all college students once, too,” Barr said. “As my husband says, ‘You wouldn’t act this way at your parents’ house; we don’t expect you to act this way in our neighborhood.’”

Barr said she and her husband are planning to move out of the neighborhood in a few years once they finish building a home in the country.

Jeremy Garcia, a junior studying nutrition, lives in a duplex with two roommates about 10 minutes away from Texas A&M University and said living in a residential area is cheaper and offers students more space.

“It’s more homey in a place where I’m really far away from home,” said Garcia, who is from Brownsville, about six hours away from College Station.

Neighbors have occasionally told him to keep the noise down, but Garcia said there haven't been serious problems. Communication is the key, he said. He and his roommates introduced themselves to all their neighbors.

“The town was built around a university, so as a resident you have to realize that your neighbors are going to be students and students add to the economy of your city,” Garcia said.

Chris Zaiontz, a realtor for West Campus Realty in Austin, said the market for student rental homes is booming, attracting many investors from out of state.

If the city limits the number of students allowed to live in a home, some investors might just build two homes on one lot and pack the most students they can in each one. And then, he said, there's the matter of whether students comply with any proposed limitations.

"There's a lot of students living in those properties who are not necessarily on the lease contract," Zaiontz said. "I don't know if it would limit four guys renting a house from letting three other guys sleep there."

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/08/20/families-move-out-stealth-dorms-move/.

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