Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The so-called ‘brothel law’ in Williamsburg is a myth, but that’s not the problem here

(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pexels)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pexels)

It’s a rumor that usually starts on college campuses: If multiple women of no relation are living under the same roof, then they are considered to be living in a brothel.

Antonia Darnella, policy coordinator for Williamsburg Action, interviewed local business owner Victoria Goldsby on the subject of living wages. The interview was posted as a video on Williamsburg Action’s Facebook page as a part of their living wage and credit reform week.

Goldsby, who was unavailable for comment, brought up how she encountered issues in finding affordable off-campus housing when she was a student at William & Mary. She said it was because of an outdated city code called the “brothel law.”

Kate Evans is in the second year of grad school at William & Mary. This year, she is moving in with one of her classmates. Originally she and her roommate were planning on renting a four-bedroom house off-campus with their significant others. They used Zillow to find houses and toured several homes with Realtors.

When Evans and her roommate asked for an application, they were told to not bother.

“Anytime we would put in applications, even if we could more than afford the rent, they weren’t allowed to rent to four unrelated people,” she said.

So does this so-called “brothel law” still exist and does it really affect the number of females allowed to live together?

Well, there is indeed a city ordinance limiting unit occupancy, just not in the way you think.

Under Sec. 21-161.1 in Williamsburg’s city code, no more than three unrelated persons may occupy a single-family dwelling. Four persons of no relation are allowed to share a house, but they need approval from the city first.

The ordinance does not specify gender.

Heather Markle, the city’s zoning administrator, said such occupancy limitations were found to be constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas.

City ordinances reserving land use to single-family housing were constitutional and did not violate the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, according to the 1974 ruling.

The key word here is “family.”

Markle said the city defines a family as “two or more persons related by blood, adoption, marriage or guardianship” or “two unrelated persons along with one or more dependents related to either of them by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship.”

But the ordinance does not even concern brothels. Its purpose is not to prevent brothels but to regulate interest in housing.

“City Council in 1991 determined as a policy matter that the occupancy limit should be set at three unrelated people in an effort to balance the competing interests present in the City’s residential neighborhoods,” Markle wrote in an email.

Under Article 6 in Sec. 10-104 of the city code, bawdy places are stated as unlawful. This particular ordinance does not specify gender nor does it give an occupancy limit.

The occupancy limit of single-family homes still doesn’t stop people from having the extra roommate to make ends meet.

According to a housing assessment from 2018, 60% of housing units in Williamsburg are single-family homes. From the same report, about 3,100 students, half being undergraduates, live off-campus. The demand for off-campus housing for W&M students has increased by about 900 students over the last 20 years.

Graham Weinschenk is a senior currently living off-campus this year. After living in the Green and Gold Village on campus his freshman year, he decided to move off-campus with some friends. He said some of the freshmen dorms do not have AC-units, and the only way to get a window unit installed is with a doctor’s note. He said he also dealt with cockroaches in his dorm.

So he’s been living off-campus since his sophomore year.

Weinschenk said many W&M professors rent out homes off-campus to students, yet they allow more than the permitted number of people to occupy the house while still charging high rent.

“The overall rent for my house last year was $4,000 a month. It was pricey. The landlord knew there were more than three people living there, but didn’t acknowledge it. But it did create some tricky dynamics,” he said.

Weinschenk is no longer renting there, but he still chooses to live off-campus to save money.

Evans, though she and her roommate chose to stay in the apartment, said graduate students are not allowed to have a separate job. Students are only allowed to have part-time jobs. So not only is Evans expected to afford high rent, she is also not allowed to have too many roommates to split the costs.

Students are not the only ones affected by this city ordinance, but also low-income families.

“We’re looking at some of those families who are on the verge of evictions and they’re going to be looking at ways to pull their resources so that they can have affordable housing, and Williamsburg is notorious for having very expensive housing,” Darnella said. “Laws like this are disproportionately affecting both college students but also Black and brown people.”

Darnella mentioned how new apartments in Williamsburg are being built with rents as high as $2,000 a month.

According to the same housing assessment from 2018, the area around the university has a median rental rate of $1,123, while the northeast part of the city has a median rent of $960. The northwestern part of the county has a median rent of $1,242.

“That’s very difficult for people in Williamsburg, especially Black people and brown people, who maybe work at William & Mary as the janitor or they used to work in the cafeteria. Those folks are the ones who are going to be affected because they can’t find housing right in the city where they live,” she said.

Darnella has been a certified property manager for 12 years and said credit reform was also a major contributing factor for families to afford decent housing. The coronavirus pandemic has also brought up issues regarding space and affordability. The solution many people have turned toward is combining households.

“Folks are looking for ways now to create pockets for economic relief and be disease-free the best way they can,” Darnella said.

Williamsburg Action will be focusing next week on reparations and housing reform. Darnella said the group plans on making calls to local government officials and will release another educational video on the subject.

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