Student Housing: San Marcos zoning rule puts crimp in student vets’ housing plan

By Ciara O’Rourke for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

SAN MARCOS — A law prohibiting more than two unrelated people from living in the same single-family residence has come under scrutiny since it forced three veterans attending Texas State University to abandon their housing arrangement.

The city’s fire marshal’s office during the summer informed the three roommates, who were living together in the El Camino Real subdivision, that they were violating city code. Only a family and up to one other nonrelative may live in homes in single-family zoned areas, according to the 1963 law. The trio could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The code is complaint-driven, and property owners are held accountable for code violations . The city asks violators to voluntarily comply with the rule, but if the residents don’t comply, a case can go to court. Fines for first-time offenders are up to $900. Each day that residents don’t comply can be a separate offense.

Matthew Lewis, the city’s director of development services, said the law exists to “make single-family dwellings function like single-family dwellings.” Lewis said San Marcos has about 7,400 homes zoned single-family.He didn’t know how many multifamily dwellings there are but said “it’s higher than that for sure.”

The complaint against the veterans is one of 11 the city is currently investigating in that subdivision, Lewis said. The city receives about 100 such complaints a year, he said.

One of the roommates, Matthew Osborn , cried foul, filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Sept. 26.

Lewis said the agency told the city Monday that Osborn’s charge that San Marcos violated the Fair Housing Act was unwarranted.

San Marcos has historically struggled to find a comfortable balance with Texas State students. Elena Duran , chairwoman of the city’s Neighborhood Commission, said the policy protects property values against serial renters who run down neighboring houses.

Census data from 2010 show that about 25,041 of the city’s 44,894 residents live in rented homes; about 20,293 live in multiunit residential structures.

Duran said she feels sorry for the veterans but the city must enforce code without exception. “We’re trying to keep our property value up,” she said. “We’re trying to keep the integrity of our neighborhoods up.”

Texas State’s vice president of student affairs, Joanne Smith, said freshmen are required to live on campus but that typically as many as 16,000 students live off campus.

Smith said the university educates students about city ordinances, in part through Achieving Community Together, a program with the city to promote positive relations between students and long-term residents. The university’s website also provides information for students living off campus, she said. A city Web page for Texas State students also links to an explanation of the law.

“I think the situation with these particular students is unfortunate because I think they thought this (house) was outside the city limits,” Smith said.

Albert DeGarmo, student body president at Texas State, said the law is an aggravation for students because it limits their living options.

“Basically, you have to find a house that’s situated in a multifamily zoning area or you’re going to the apartments,” he said.

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