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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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JODY SERRANO reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.


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6 thoughts on “College towns clamor for rules against ‘stealth dorms’

  1. Interesting.

    I think the line about not doing this in your parents’ house probably hits the closest to the answer.

    I think the younger transient population (student and non-student) don’t feel like they are part of the community. They may not have plans to stay here, and may not even know their neighbors.

    A lot can probably be done, to change this. Stronger neighborhood relations, block parties, cookouts, etc., could at least change the dialog between neighbors.

    More careers in San Marcos could lead to better relations with young adults who actually have options for staying here.

    Figuring out how to get more homeowners to buy here, particularly at the university and our major employers, could help by creating the concern that your neighbor might be your next coworker, boss, or professor.

    More (unenforced) ordinances? Pass. All those seem to do, is reinforce in the minds of one group, that the other group is trouble, and reinforce in the other group, that they are persecuted. It really does nothing to bring anyone together.

  2. I’ve lived for the past 15 years in the home I own surrounded by college kids renting houses and duplexes. I’ve never had a problem that was not solved with a simple, respectful conversation.

  3. I think what this article is most specifically referring to isn’t just the issue of students and families living side-by-side, but rather something that we really haven’t seen in San Marcos. What I’ve seen in my friend’s neighborhood around 51st St. in Austin is someone buying a modest, 1,500sf house surrounded by similar houses on small lots and then building a HUGE addition onto it with maybe 7-10 more bedrooms. So now we’re talking about a dozen students on a quarter-acre lot, each with their own car and no driveway. There are a few streets that have more than one, and it’s just packed. And who would want to buy the little bungalow next door except to do the same thing? Everyone there is afraid it’ll happen to the house nextdoor to theirs next. (It really doesn’t matter how well-behaved the renters are.) Although the non-related occupant code we have is difficult to enforce, it does deter building these kinds of house “additions”, for now, anyway.

    I’m just as interested as everyone else in solving the “where do we put the students” question. I’m only weighing in here because I’ve actually seen these “mini-dorms” myself in Austin, not San Marcos. I think it’s a little more specific than the basic “town/gown” issue, and something you would never see until one went up right near you.

    I also have 3 college dudes renting across the street from me. They’re not in compliance, but they’re good neighbors. I, personally, have never had a problem with college kids renting existing houses around mine. But that’s just my experience!!

  4. Does anyone really that San Marcos seriously enforces the laws already on the books for this?

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