Last Thursday night, a cadre of little old ladies in orthopedic shoes armed itself with picket signs and lined up outside the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Georgetown to wait for a meeting with Mayor Marion Barry. With signs bearing cryptic slogans like, “Overlay Now,” “Keep Taxpayers in Burleith, Foxhall, Georgetown,” and “Preserve Our Neighborhoods: Cap of 3,” the women and a few gentlemen politely waved at bemused drivers, hoping to enlist support in stomping out their neighborhood’s No. 1 scourge: student-occupied group houses.
Resident Suzi Gookin was leading the charge, neatly dressed in a yellow checked suit that complemented her picket sign, which read, “Mr. Mayor Help.” When asked whether she thought the mayor would support her, Gookin replied, “Oh, the mayor. Who takes the mayor seriously?”
Still, when word spread that Barry was about to arrive, a thin older gent in a tweed jacked led the small crowd in a chant: “Bar-ry! Bar-ry!” When the mayor disembarked from his car, the small crowd went wildwell, as wild as tweedy Georgetown homeowners tend to get.
It’s not often you see a group of such well-heeled white folks cheering on Marion Barry in public, especially not on the streets of Georgetown. But Barry came to the Ellington School last week at the request of the surprisingly powerful Burleith Citizens Association to hear residents complain about Georgetown University students. Early this year, several Georgetown citizens’ associations presented the city’s office of planning with a proposal to ban group houses in West Georgetown, the Cloisters, Hillandale, Foxhall, and Burleith on the grounds that they threaten the “residential nature of the neighborhood.”
The proposed zoning overlay would prohibit more than three unrelated people from living together in houses in those neighborhoods. The move represents residents’ second-tier attack on Georgetown students after they failed to get the D.C. Council to ban group houses citywide. The overlay has the support of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and, apparently, the mayor himself, who seems suddenly interested in the concerns of residents of this swanky District enclave.
Residents say the overlay is particularly necessary in Burleith, where the small row houses have essentially become a student ghetto, with absentee landlords raking in big bucks by cramming dozens of students into tiny, substandard houses and charging them $400-$500 apiece to live there.
Burleith homeowner Fred Fleming and his neighbors contend that the concentration of students in the neighborhood has left it in tatters, with old couches and beer kegs littering front lawns and houses in disrepair, threatening the property values. The homeowners don’t care for the students themselves, either, accusing them of hogging all the neighborhood parking, making too much noise with loud parties, and creating general mayhem in what should be a quiet residential enclave.
Fleming says that while students have always lived in the neighborhood, the problem got worse after the city raised the drinking age and students sought out new swilling holesnamely private homes where they could load in a few kegs of beer. He says students have moved off campus in droves and that wandering bands of drunk students are terrorizing the neighborhood. “It’s a matter of them being obnoxious drunks. It’s not that they’re students,” says Fleming.
Steven Block, a mild-mannered resident of Burleith, says he’s not really opposed to rental properties in the neighborhood. He’s just concerned that a lot of the homes in Burleith are not kept responsibly, and he blames absentee landlords for the poor conditions. “It makes people want to move out.”
Tension between Georgetown’s residents and its student population is a perennial, but low-level skirmishes have turned into a full-fledged war since Georgetown students mobilized last year to elect some of their own to the advisory neighborhood commission (ANC).
In spite of all his complaints about upkeep,, Block says, “What pushed my button was the ANC election.” The sight of Georgetown vans bringing students to the polls incited him to come and express his support for the overlay to the mayor.
Fleming, too, is particularly pissed off about the elections and talks ad nauseam about the “voter fraud” of the students’ voting in the election. As he rails about the abominable conditions of their group houses in Burleith, he flicks a cigarette butt onto the sidewalk with all the skill of a trailer-park resident. Students driving by in sport-utility vehicles boo the protesters as they head inside for the meeting.
Inside the Ellington School, the library is packed with outraged homeowners, disgruntled students, and a couple of die-hard tenant activists. The Burleith Citizens Association has lined the library walls with charts and photo collages of houses it claims are student group homes decorated with out-of-state cars, parked illegally; trash and old furniture on the front lawns; and empty kegs lined up against uncurtained windows. There are photos of three Burleith homes destroyed in a 1994 fire that killed a student.
Barry begins the meeting with the ease of someone who knows he’s talking to a friendly crowd. He starts out his speech by asking how many people in the room were around when they “fought off Papa John’s,” a pizza delivery joint that Georgetown residents kept from opening in their neighborhood. The crowd responds with applause and cheers for Barry, who for some reason decided to join the anti-pizza battle. He’s clearly enjoying the adulation of these unlikely fanswho by and large have never voted for him, and probably never will.
After the applause dies down, Barry turns the floor over to Peter Pulsifer, the outgoing president of the Burleith Citizens Association. Pulsifer is a dweeby middle-aged man in a blue suit who reads his speech from cards, tripping over some of the facts as he tries to add some punch to his delivery. With all the flair of a professional bean counter, Pulsifer incites the crowd by concluding that the neighborhood is becoming a “group-housing district,” a term he seems pleased to have coined.
He holds up a neighborhood map in which group houses have been marked in red; Burleith looks awash in blood, a hemorrhaging patient in need of a tourniquet. Pulsifer says that some entire blocks are made up entirely of group houses and that the balance has turned so that almost half of all Burleith homes are rental properties. He says the real crime is that the student housing shortage has encouraged landlords to create group homes, cram students into tiny, decrepit houses, and still charge them $500 each in monthly rent. Pulsifer says the zoning overlay is the perfect solution to the neighborhood’s problem because it attacks the commercial use of housing.
As Pulsifer closes, Barry says, “Now, I support the general concept” but before he can finish, a giant cheer rises up and drowns out the pissed-off student minority in the back of the room. Some of the students make their voices heard, telling Barry he should listen to what they have to say before making a decision to support the group-house ban. Always the politician, Barry backpedals and splits a hair, saying he isn’t officially supporting the homeowners. He says, “I support the idea of trying to keep control of our neighborhoods. That’s supporting the general concept.”
Barry calls on Georgetown law student Daniel Ward, who stands up and challenges Pulsifer’s map, pointing out that his own house has been marked in red as a group house even though only two people live it. He questions the methodology that the citizens’ association has used to present its case to the mayor. “It creates a red scare that doesn’t exist,” Ward says.
Jim McGrath, from tenants’ rights group Tenant’s Advocacy Coalition, jumps in to tell the mayor that because the group-house ban targets a specific group of people and is based on income levels, the overlay is “so discriminatory…I don’t understand how you could support it.” Which prompts several people to start yelling, “Define a single family!” and “What about gay families?”
Barry masterfully throws water on the flames and keeps people from ripping each other’s throats out. “I’m gettin’ a good flavor here,” Barry says, rubbing his hands together.
Eventually, Barry yields the floor to Georgetown busybody Westy Byrd, whose well-publicized effort to keep students out of polling booths was probably the single biggest factor in bringing out a record number of student voters last fall.
Byrd has something like a 27-point agenda to cover. She draws some boos before railing against Georgetown University for reneging on its long-overdue commitment to build more on-campus housing. Byrd finishes her last point, and Barry adjourns the meeting to head off a melee as a short, stocky woman with a heavy New York accent jumps up to yell at one of the “absentee landlords.” Barry shuffles everyone out after saying, “I think it’s been a good meeting, hasn’t it?”
Before he can leave, though, Rebecca Sinderbrand asks a question. Sinderbrand is one of the Georgetown students elected in the controversial ANC election last fall. She asks Barry why the city hasn’t hired the 20 new housing inspectors it has gotten funding for, and he promises to get on that.
For someone at the heart of controversy, Sinderbrand is surprisingly reasonable and claims to represent all her constituents, not just students. She says neighbors of the university are exaggerating the breadth of the problem with student housing, noting that Georgetown houses 77 percent of its undergrads on campus. Like Byrd, she thinks the university needs to build more campus housingwhich it is doing, but the planned 500-bed dorm won’t be done until 2000.
Sinderbrand also acknowledges that student houses in Burleith aren’t exactly pristine. The students know there’s a problem, says Sinderbrand. What’s really at issue, she says, it how to address it.
“We have absentee landlords who don’t maintain properties, and that won’t change [with the overlay],” she notes. “Even if the area needs an overlay, this one isn’t a very good one. I don’t believe it would accomplish what it sets out to do.”
Indeed, the zoning overlay would not have prevented the 1994 Burleith fire, which opponents cite as an example of what can go wrong when group houses go unregulated. Sinderbrand points out that only three students lived in that house at the time of the fire. She says the city would be better off enforcing the housing regulations already on the books, which are adequate to curtail many of the problems with the group houses.
Sinderbrand suggests that the citizens’ associations are dreaming if they think that getting rid of the students will solve their problems. Considering that the middle class has been leaving the District in droves, she wonders whether dozens of nice, three-member nuclear families are really going to snatch up all the empty group houses once the students are gone. “I don’t know that those houses would be filled with families,” says Sinderbrand. “They could be left vacant, which would not help the residential character of the neighborhood at all.”CP