Rowdy students partying into all hours of the night are keeping neighbors awake. These so called off campus "party houses" are now at the center of debate over American University's plans to expand. Neighbors want AU to get the problem under control and have taken their complaints to DC's zoning commission. The board's decision on AU's expansion was delayed again this month. Commissioners voiced concerns that the university needs to do more to address these types of issues in the community before they become a problem.
One of the biggest problems continues to be the university's policing of off campus parties by students. While AU is ranked among the top in the country, it's those students behaving badly and keeping neighbors up all night that give the university a bad rap. "We tried everything. We tried earplugs. We tried Nyquil," lamented Kris Persinger, who lives in AU Park. It's a neighborhood where homes often sell for a million dollars. On the flipside, it's also a neighborhood where houses are rented to students with sometimes 6, 8 or more people in one house.
Four years ago, groups of current and former AU students moved in on Van Ness Street across from Persinger, his wife and their daughter. They tried to live with it, but after a while he began to dread nights when he saw beer kegs arrive at the house across the street. "The first group had parties maybe once a month, but the second group of people …it got to be an every weekend, maybe not an official party every weekend but they had gatherings," he said.
Persinger's five-year-old daughter wears ear muffs to drown out the noise, referring to the young men across the street as the "noisy boys."
Persinger is one of the few that will speak publicly about the problem. Other neighbors complained in e-mails of finding the alley "full of beer cans” and “used condoms” strewn with other debris. A resident at the home suggested FOX 5 talk to Jocelyn Hicks, who lives two doors down and has lived in the same house for more than 30 years. Even she says the parties got much worse, when the latest group moved into the Van Ness Street house. "They have very loud parties at night going on until 2:00 a.m. in the morning," said Hicks.
On Facebook pictures show the house as being used for fraternity meetings and numerous parties. It was nicknamed "forward operating base Van Ness" and on Four Square the address is listed as a "dive bar." The young men who live in the house are military veterans, and unlike typical college-aged students, most are in their mid-20's, going to college after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point, Hicks says one of the young men went door to door in the neighborhood trying to apologize for the parties. "I said I admire what you've done for this country, but I'm not admiring what's going on now," she told them.
The house on Van Ness is one of several problem houses the university deals with each year. According to university officials, AU receives repeated complaints for about 6-10 student houses off campus. It's been an ongoing issue for a decade or more.
A few houses have had notable problems. On 43rd Street, neighbors complained of finding women's underwear and beer cans in the front lawn at a house rented by a group of fraternity members. The problems went on for two years. At one point, a neighbor told FOX 5 her husband and child were mooned by a student. It took repeated intervention from the university and the national fraternity to deal with the problems. "The national office affiliated with that organization, the property owner or landlord got involved and eventually the students did move out," said Michelle Espinosa, American University's associate dean of students who handles these issues.
In 2010 on Ellicott Street, neighbors reported public urination and nude dancers at another home rented by students. The university worked with police to address the problems but at the time could only discipline students off campus for criminal behavior. The students finally moved.
Over on 44th Street, neighbors complained one house has been rented to AU students for at least 10 years and remains a continuous nuisance. They describe "large drunken parties and vandalized cars." One person told FOX 5 party goers will hide in bushes and neighbor's garages when parties get busted by police. No one would talk publicly, citing fear of revenge. AU says the house isn't on their radar but neighbors say that's because they call police when parties get too loud rather than notify the university. "Most AU students are good neighbors but this small minority of students is able to cause just tremendous persistent problems for their neighbors," said Jonathan Bender Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and Chairman of ANC 3E, which includes AU Park.
Police would not say how often they've been called to any specific house citing privacy concerns. The Persingers turned to police after initially trying to work things out with their student neighbors. They contacted city officials, the university and circulated a petition collecting about 50 signatures. Then they claim the harassment started, carried out by roommates in the house who were not AU students. They had taxi cabs sent to the Persingers at 2:00 a.m. and food delivered to their door at 4:00 a.m.
One night the Persingers recorded the incidents with their cell phone. On the video you can hear the delivery man ask "Did you order food?" Persinger's wife tells him no, and then asks to verify the delivery information he was given. The restaurant had been given the Persingers' address and home phone number. At the same time the lights were on across the street. Persinger's wife suggests the food may belong to the young men there.
When the delivery man goes across the street, someone answers the door, waves toward the Persingers' camera and pays for the food. On the recording the delivery man is asked "They said the food is ours?"
"Yes,” he replies. The Persingers reported the harassment to police, but when officers showed up at the house there was no answer at the door.
Persinger's wife, a former FOX 5 employee, described what happened under oath to DC's zoning commission, during one of many hearings over AU's expansion plans. The zoning commission has twice postponed its ruling on the plan to add additional dorms, increase enrollment and build additional facilities on the campus. The commission asked the university to address some of the neighborhood concerns as a condition of expansion. At the most recent meeting on February 16, the commission raised concerns that not enough was being done. It has now asked AU to work to strengthen its Neighborhood Liaison Committee, to work with the community in an attempt to resolve issues before they become a problem. Camille LePre, assistant vice president of communications for AU said, "We will work to achieve that."
Some of these same issues were raised 10 years ago, the last time AU's campus plan was approved. Bender, the ANC chairman hears many of the neighborhood complaints. "If police are unable to stop the misconduct. That can be a year of hell for neighbors," he said.
In 2010, the university broadened its student conduct code to off campus incidents that may not necessarily break the law but are disruptive to the community. This fall, four incidents resulted in conduct charges. "The range of sanctions in our process includes everything from a citation, which is basically a warning, letting the student know their behavior is unacceptable to suspension or dismissal from the university," said Espinosa.
The university has also made other changes. Students are now required to register their off campus addresses at the beginning of every semester. It's public safety officers, under an agreement with DC police, can also respond to off campus student housing when there are complaints. If public safety officers believe a party is too loud or behavior is disruptive, they can file a report that could lead to disciplinary action by AU, even if DC police don't issue any citations or file criminal charges.
The Persingers had complained to the university about the house on their street on numerous occasions. In the fall, one of the young men mistakenly sent an email to Persinger's wife. It talks about "bigger parties" and the need to "watch for police" and encouraged everyone to "do the sh** that bothered her". The family showed the e-mail and video of the alleged harassment to school officials. It's this type of evidence the university often needs to take action. "We do need to have the identity of the student. We need to be able to identify specifically who was involved. We need to have a witness involved... so it is difficult sometimes to reach the level of evidence necessary to pursue conduct [charges]," Espinosa said.
In this case, AU's actions were limited because not everyone living in the house is an AU student. Espinosa told FOX 5 she believes the Persingers may have been harassed, but the night of the incident university officials determined the two students who lived there were not home at the time and could not have been involved in the food delivery or late night cab calls. The e-mail came from another roommate. "I did meet with the two students involved in that particular residence and they agreed at that point that no additional issues would be occurring," Espinosa said.
No one who lives at the house would talk to FOX 5, except for a one sentence statement by email on the condition the student not be named saying "that we have been working constantly, and will still continue to work towards maintaining a positive relationship with our community."
Their next door neighbor says she hasn't had problems with any loud parties since moving in 9 months ago, calling them "nice young men." But last month citing "nuisance activity at the property" the DC attorney general's office filed a civil suit against their landlord for renting without a business license. Neighbors say the parties stopped around September or October, after the university intervened. "Without any proof we were just another complaining neighbor, without any evidence. So once we had the signatures [from the petition] and the video then I think they took us seriously," Persinger said.
Other universities in DC have faced similar complaints. Police say noise complaints can be difficult to enforce. Not all officers have noise meters and they can't go into a house if no one answers the door. AU says it believes it has far fewer problems than other campuses. The zoning commission is also weighing zoning changes involving Georgetown University over problems with students who live off campus in Georgetown's surrounding neighborhood.
Right now, about 30% of AU students live off campus. While a particular house may be an ongoing problem, the student tenants often change, handed down in a way from one group to the next. It puts the university back at square one because it's a whole new group of students that can't be held accountable for previous problems. So every year AU admits the fight to quiet house parties starts all over again.