Around a dozen students may soon not have a place to live after the Auburn Planning Department received a rash of complaints, alleging that several homes — occupied mostly by Auburn students — were in violation of a zoning ordinance little-known to students.
Auburn senior Hayley Bylsma and her four roommates, who live on Dumas Drive near Samford Avenue, were recently told they were in violation of a portion of the city’s zoning ordinance dubbed the unrelated occupancy rule.
Bylsma and her roommates live in a house owned by her father. Her parents plan to retire there and she and her roommates were using it as a place to live for school.
She said she and her family had no idea about the ordinance until around April 2016, during the spring of her sophomore year, when police came to their home early in the morning and notified them a complaint had been filed. Bylsma wasn’t there at the time because she was overseas, she said.
They were told they were in violation of the ordinance, but later the problem faded away and the city never took any enforcement action, Bylsma said. That is, until about two weeks ago when — during a series of several searches performed in the area — police and planning officials showed back up at their home.
“It was like 6 a.m. and there was violent banging on the doors,” Bylsma said.
She went to the door and police showed her the search warrant, she said. Bylsma let the police and planning officials into the house when they said they had to perform a search to determine how many unrelated people were living together. A complaint had been filed against them with the planning department.
“They went through our drawers. They treated us like criminals,” Bylsma said. “If we had done something like a crime, I would understand that, but we really didn’t do anything wrong. It was really just invasive and made us feel like we were criminals even when we hadn’t done anything at all.”
The police said they had been monitoring their cars as part of the investigation, Bylsma said. With enough probable cause, the planning officials and police had obtained a warrant to execute the search.
Auburn Planning Director Forrest Cotten and Police Chief Paul Register said the searches are performed in the morning out of necessity. It is typical practice when it comes to zoning checks for both ordinance violations and to determine if people are living in the school district they're zoned for.
“The best time to determine if someone is living somewhere is when they first wake up in the morning," Register said. "If you go over there during the day, that’s not really an accurate representation of who lives there.”
After police performed the search, Bylsma said they were later told they were in violation of the ordinance, and all but one of her roommates were told they had to move out within 30 days.
They haven’t decided which roommate will get to stay, Bylsma said, but the others will have to go if something doesn’t change. A municipal court date has been set for early October.
In some typically older, family-oriented neighborhoods — zoned as neighborhood conservation (NC) districts, limited development districts (LDD) or development districts (DD) — only two unrelated individuals can live together in the same home, Cotten said. Many of the homes in the neighborhoods are rented out to students, who unbeknownst to them, are living in violation of the ordinance.
"There is nothing about those zoning regulations that is new," Cotten said. "The neighbors just tend to inform themselves. The students may not be aware of what the zoning regulations are. When they enter into leases they may not be properly informed by those who found these house for them, and that’s what happens."
In Bylsma’s case, she said her father built the house and was never told about the zoning ordinance even when he had to submit plans to the city for approval.
“My dad had to show the plans to the city,” she said. “He said it was for five bedrooms. It’s for girls. He told them what the plan was. They knew what we were doing, and they never said anything.”
Several other groups of Auburn students who live in houses on Payne Street, Hare Avenue and Dumas Drive just southeast of downtown Auburn were recently evicted too after police and Auburn Planning Department officials served search warrants and discovered the students were living in violation of the ordinance.
Typically, the landlords or homeowners are served violations and are forced to evict the unrelated students or face court penalties. Most of the time, according to Cotten, landlords comply voluntarily and tell the students they have to move out. If that happens, the court cases are usually resolved.
City officials said there hasn’t been an increase or change in enforcement, but rather an increase in complaints filed with the Planning Department by older, long-term neighbors who know the zoning rules and notice the students living together.
“We’ve just received an unusual number of complaints this semester,” Cotten said. “I don’t recall a time when we’ve had as many active complaints.”
The Auburn Planning Department has launched at least 17 investigations into complaints alleging unrelated occupancy ordinance violations since August — most of the complaints were against students living together.
Some of them were proven unfounded but at least five homes in total have been served with violations and several others were “resolved,” according to Principal Planner Thom Weintraut.
By resolved, that means the landlords or renters voluntarily asked the extra students living in violation of the ordinance to move out. Either way, almost a dozen students have been told to move out within 30 days with no place to go — in the middle of the academic semester.
“There have been several people that have gotten kicked out,” said SGA President Jacqueline Keck. “Since the city and the University do work so well together, I’m shocked that there was not some consideration of the academic calendar. Having to pack up and move and find a place to live when you’re involved and trying to take tests, that’s a lot to deal with.”
“Students’ involvement and academic success are hanging in the balance,” Keck said. “Is the city providing them information and tools? Maybe students need to be better educated on it.”
The unrelated occupancy rule was first passed in 1982 and has been on the books ever
Keck said it's a problem that landlords and homeowners aren't informing students about the occupancy rule and are letting them sign leases that may be in violation of the ordinance.
“The issue in my mind is that students are innocent bystanders that are getting punished for something that was not in their control nor were they aware of,” she said. “The bigger question is who is renting them these houses. That’s the realtors and the landlords. And they know the laws.”
With their court date approaching, Bylsma said she hopes the city will consider giving them an extension so her roommates, two of which are graduating in December, don’t have to move out and find a new place to live.
“If it does go through, we’ll just have to pick who gets to stay,” Bylsma said. “I’m sure there are some apartments somewhere but it would be really not a good situation.”
Bylsma and her roommate, Brook Buckles, are also taking a direct approach and have launched an online petition to garner support for changing the zoning ordinances, which they feel discriminate against students in traditionally older neighborhoods.
“We feel as students that
More than 6,000 people have already signed the change.org petition asking the city to stop evicting students from their homes, saying “students are valuable members of the community and should not be made homeless because of this.”
That portion of the story was based off an on-the-record interview with Bylsma. Bylsma clarified on Oct. 3 that she and her roommates moved into the home in January 2016 (nearly two years ago) and police notified them of a complaint around April 2016, she told The Plainsman. She said no enforcement action or eviction notice was taken at the time. They were not contacted again until September 2017 when another complaint was served.