Students and residents of Fredericksburg, Virginia are in constant battle with a brothel law created by city officials that makes it so no more than three unrelated people are allowed to live in a single house.
“My roommates and I have had multiple conversations about whether or not we would consider having a fourth roommate,” shared a current junior at the University of Mary Washington. “Although we are aware of the rule, it would cut down on our rent quite a bit, especially since we have an entire space that is not being utilized because of this unnecessary rule.”
As her sophomore year came to an end, the rising junior began looking for a house to rent off-campus. Finding two other roommates to live with didn’t take long, but soon they began discussing the possibility of having a fourth to make their rent more cost-affordable. She soon learned that it would not be as easy as they were expecting it to be. To begin with, she along with many students have a parent present as a cosigner on their lease. This means that they are partially responsible for what happens within the specific unit, and can become subject to any fine that comes as a result of the tenants. She was considering keeping it a secret from her parents and letting a fourth person stay in secret. However, she ultimately decided that she did not want to lie to her parents, especially with the possibility of being caught and fined.
This student is one of many across the country that face difficulties when it comes to finding reliable housing away from campus. According to a survey conducted by J. Turner research in 2013, about 80 percent of students live off-campus. More importantly, 42 percent of the respondents indicated that they live with three other roommates. These numbers further conclude that current zoning laws and regulations in Fredericksburg are limiting student’s access to housing that is statistically normal.
Within the last two years, the Zoning Administration has received twenty-one reports of overcrowding. According to the Administration, their standard practice is to go to the property, speak with the tenants or the property owner, and find out how many people are living inside of the house. Depending on what they find, they will make the next step if necessary.
“If there appears to be an overcrowding situation, a notice of violation is sent,” shared James Newman, a Fredericksburg Zoning Administrator, who followed with “Warrants and other legal action are pursued if necessary.”
Assuming they are caught, the tenant who is not present on the lease is committing a misdemeanor crime and will be expected to pay a fine of up to $2,000. If the violation continues, the individual responsible will then have to pay another fine of $7,500 to the city. If done so in the first 30 days following the violation, an individual can send an appeal to the Board of Zoning Appeals, where it must be accompanied by a $400 fee to be processed.
Newman shared that of the past twenty-one reports that have been placed, almost all complied with the regulations, which was followed by the process ending there. One of them, however, was taken to court where the defendant was found guilty and received a fine.
“Before I became a tenant in this house, there used to be a group of five guys all living here, which is clearly against the rules,” the junior shared. “Luckily as long as our landlord gets their money, and we don’t get into any trouble, they don’t care what is going on.”
This is not unheard of among students, as many of them end up living in a house with three or more people. And although it has received the name brothel law colloquially, it has nothing to do with prostitution, or the attempt to limit it.
The law was first put into place in the year 1985 with an initial goal to maintain overall public health by not overcrowding the city. According to the Fredericksburg Community Planning and Building website, there are several legitimate reasons why the law is still in existence. These reasons include that overcrowding increases a negative effect on children, as it limits their room to play. That it harms mental health due to lack of privacy, as well as increased risk of infection being able to spread to a larger number of individuals. The list goes on to cite the need to limit the amount of trash and traffic within the city.
Over the last decade, Fredericksburg’s population has begun to see a steady increase in size. Officials are expecting to see major growth continue over the next couple of decades. Concerns regarding the zoning law have continued to emerge, as it does not acknowledge the lack of housing within Fredericksburg.
The rule also overlooks the existence of non-traditional housing, assuming that all those who live together are within the same family unit. Some of the city’s residents are unable to afford the city’s rent alone and need multiple roommates to help in decreasing the monthly cost. So although the law was put into place to keep the community of Fredericksburg healthy and safe, it is also preventing individuals like students and non-family unit-based residents from receiving proper housing.
As the University student and Fredericksburg city populations continue to grow, there is reason to believe that there might be changes made at some point in time. If a change were to be enacted, members of the City Council would conduct changes to the specific code. Until then, students will continue to live within Fredericksburg rental properties in secret to ensure that they have an affordable, safe place to live.
“If the cost difference is big, then I am willing to take the risk to save me and my family some money in the long run, even if I have to work around the rules to make it happen” shared rising senior Grace Palmateer.