‘Three-person rule’ irks student renters
By Nathaniel Ward, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, May 9, 2002
A Hanover zoning ordinance known colloquially as the "three-persons rule" has been the bane of students seeking off-campus housing since its passage in 1961 and revision in 1976.
Although it states that no more than three unrelated people can live together in a rented space, Hanover Zoning Administrator Judith Brotman said the law is probably violated more often than is discovered by zoning authorities.
According to Brotman, the high cost of housing in Hanover means multiple students often contribute to paying rent. In addition, she said some landlords do not check for compliance with the rule and even rent to more than three students.
"No particular care [is] taken to see if that rule is being violated," Brotman said of landlords' renting practices.
On the other hand, inspectors do perform periodic "spot-checks" for compliance with the rule, Brotman said. Inspectors look for signs of more than three residents, including more than three cars in a parking lot.
Few Dartmouth students are found to be in violation of the ordinance, Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman said. By his recollection, the most recent violation took place in Fall term 2000, when a fourth student was found to be living in an apartment and sought help finding a room from the Office of Residential Life.
Not all violations are reported to the College, however, since students often handle the problems themselves without help from Dartmouth.
For example, Matt Frankel '02 said that during Winter term of 2001 police investigated the overcrowding at the rental house where he was living, owned by local landlord Fred Salvatoriello.
Frankel said police discovered the violation after observing illegally parked cars outside the seven-bedroom house. Although Salvatoriello had to pay a fine, Frankel said the extra occupants were not told to leave.
"You get these big houses that can sleep five or seven people, and clearly the rent is going to be higher," Frankel said. "There's going to be more than three people living there."
While most cases of overcrowding are not prosecuted because the additional residents leave once the violation is discovered, the landlord faces a hefty fine of $275 per day, Hanover Planning and Zoning Director Jonathan Edwards said.
The penalty is a flat, Edwards said, adding, "It doesn't matter whether it's four or 10 or 50" additional occupants.
According to section 210.1 (F) of the 1976 zoning statute, which deals with housing rentals, "A non-owner-occupied dwelling unit may be rented as a residence for an unrelated family limited to three persons or a related family which will reside in the dwelling."
The first town ordinance concerning dwelling units -- defined as one or more rooms consisting of a self contained set of sleeping, eating and bathrooms -- went on the books in 1961, Brotman said. Current law also restricts single rooms without kitchen or bath facilities.
While both the 1961 and 1976 laws provided for different occupancy limits depending on zoning district, an amendment passed since then eliminated the discrepancy.
The only option left to property owners wishing to rent their space to more than three students is subdivision of the house into smaller units, which is expensive and further raises the cost of housing.
In addition to making it expensive for students to live off-campus, the three-person rule frustrates de-recognized Greek houses that can no longer make use of the zoning exception granted to the College.
To claim the exemption, organizations must "have a relationship with the institution," Redman said. For example, the recently derecognized Zeta Psi fraternity can no longer house more than three students.
Redman said derecognized houses could potentially become residential again by making modifications to comply with existing zoning laws.
Redman added he was unclear as to the specific changes that need to be made but said they would involve creating "separate apartments."
According to Edwards, "most cities and towns have a similar rule, and three is the norm" for maximum occupancy.
Laws such as the three-person rule are designed to preserve communities, Redman said, adding that he has seen similar laws on the books in several towns.
The zoning ordinance and all amendments -- as in much of New England -- were passed in a town hall meeting, likely after complaints from neighbors about overcrowded houses, Edwards said.
Regardless of the original intent of the law, "it's an outdated rule that shouldn't really apply," Frankel said. "We have good relations with our neighbors -- they really like us."
"It discriminates against college students" and prevents them from finding quality off-campus housing, Frankel said.
Edwards dismissed as apocryphal the suggestion that the law was created to deal with a brothel that had opened in Hanover.
"Never heard that one," he laughed.