On the lawn in front of Gwen Verhoff’s Burleith home, there’s a red-and-white sign: “Our Homes/Not GU’s Dorm,” it reads. Several of her neighbors have the same sign. For the record, no one has proposed tearing down the strip of tidy rowhouses to make way for a residence hall. What Verhoff, a retired ESL teacher who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1975, objects to is the number of students renting there. “When I first lived here, students rented an entire room,” she says, not entire houses.
In a 2010 survey, the Burleith Citizens Association found that 166 of the neighborhood’s 535 houses are student-occupied—not counting basement apartments in owner-occupied homes. Georgetown’s own numbers were slightly higher: The school counted 191 properties with undergraduate and graduate students, or 36 percent. Critics won’t hesitate to remind you that, back in 2000, Georgetown predicted during testimony for that year’s campus plan that there would only be 20 student houses in the neighborhood.
Now, it’d be easy to lampoon the neighbors’ posture: It’s a free country, after all. Do we really want to government to say just who can rent a house somewhere? All the same, Verhoff and her neighbors have some legitimate gripes. There are a half-dozen student houses on her block, she says—a number that’s on the lower end for the area. Last fall, a party next door ended with a fistfight on the lawn. “I could hear fists hitting flesh,” she says. She’s also bothered by smaller gatherings in the tiny strip of adjacent back yard, which she says makes it difficult for her to enjoy her screened-in porch. And because her bedroom faces the street, she says, she hears everyone leaving the neighbors’ house late at night.
“I don’t think they’re trying to be mean and vicious,” she says. She adds that every year students come by, often with a plate of cookies, to ask that she talk to them before calling the police if a party is getting out of hand. But, Verhoff says, “at 1 a.m., I’m not getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and going next door to talk to drunk people.”
“Nicest kids, at three o’clock in the afternoon,” says Karen Cruse, a resident of West Georgetown. “At three in the morning it’s a different story.”
On one hand, these kinds of gripes are the inevitable, difficult byproduct of diversity. People with fundamentally different outlooks and lifestyles—not to mention schedules—are living in close proximity. In a lot of places, the blowback would be limited to some griping over the back fence. But in the District, where zoning rules create at least the impression that neighbors can influence land-use policy at adjacent universities, campus-specific spats take on a different form.
Scan the letters submitted as part of Georgetown’s decennial campus plan process and you find a slew of woe-is-me missives from residents who see themselves as victims of the students—and want the government to do something about it.
“Over the years my family and I have been victimized by Georgetown students: They have left debris all over my front yard, pulled up plants, hung underwear in the tree in my yard, thrown golf clubs over the fence into my back yard, climbed over the fence into my yard,” West Georgetown resident Lee Harrison Child wrote to the Zoning Commission last spring. “I’ve had intoxicated boys pass out on my front stoop...one boy last year woke me up to let him in because he thought he lived here!”
“I am constantly cleaning up beer cups, cans, and bottles from my front yard and have had many plants stepped on or broken,” Stefanie Bachhuber wrote. “Just last spring, I had my miniature, old-growth boxwoods devastated after a student fell into them one night. It is going to take years to bring them back to proper health. And one morning, I woke up to Silly String sprayed all over the sidewalk, my plants, and my iron stair railing (that took a good scrubbing to remove.)”
“I constantly experience red plastic cups for beer and liquor all over my front yard and steps, along with vomit, not to mention used condoms,” Betty and Roger Frankel wrote. “They continue to pull up all the flowers in my front yard that I plant each year, and I have lost several small boxwoods. The noise level is so bad my husband and I now buy Flents Foam earplugs by the case. We cannot sleep if we do not have these earplugs because the noise level is over the top.”
Bottom line: These folks make a pretty good argument that it’s no fun to live next to students. But there’s a bigger question for people who care about having the District be a dynamic, diverse, urban place: What’s the cost of controlling college kids—and who should bear it? If the presence of students is a good thing for a vibrant city, where should one place the Frankels’ understandable unhappiness in a hierarchy of needs?