On a busy road in Baltimore, Valerie Sirani walks up to a shabby beige house with three mailboxes and Christmas lights lining the windows. She knocks on the door. After a few minutes, a dozen or so young men in shorts and T-shirts gather on the front lawn, looking a bit wary.
They’re all students at Loyola University Maryland, living in a row of big houses off campus. Sirani hasn’t come alone. She’s brought with her representatives from the university and City Hall, as well as a uniformed police officer.
“My name is Val,” she tells the group. “I’m the community association president. Does everyone know what community you’re living in?”
They throw out a few guesses, but it’s clear they don’t.
“It’s Lake Walker,” Sirani tells them.
Lake Walker is a small, middle-class neighborhood in North Baltimore. With Towson University, Goucher College and Loyola all just a few miles away, Sirani has counted at least 20 houses rented by college students, out of about 700 homes. Today’s meeting is part welcome wagon, part warning.
“You’re part of our community and we want you to have fun,” Sirani says, “but we want you to be safe.”
So maybe don’t come home from a day of drinking and set out lawn chairs on your slanted roof to watch traffic, like Sirani recently saw some kids on this block doing. She stopped and took a picture.
“The kids obviously saw what I was doing and came down,” she says. “They were very polite, but extremely intoxicated.”
The minute school starts back up each year, so do the off-campus parties—and the complaints from neighbors about noise, fights, and people urinating in the bushes. Baltimore City police officer Doug Gibson shows the students a folder full of reports just from the past few weekends. If a house gets written up as a “neighborhood nuisance,” the landlord and tenants can be hit with hundreds of dollars in fines.
“Some of the reports already from this block are in that process right now,” he says. “There are going to be, most likely, some $500 citations issued already this year.”
Afterward, Loyola senior Bryan Pricoli admits the chat was a little intimidating. He also admits that having people over is one reason he wanted to live off campus.
“Obviously within normal human behavior,” he says. “This is just six good guys living together, and just having a good time our senior year.”
And they don’t have that much choice about where to live. Decades ago Loyola made an unusual agreement with several neighborhoods in its backyard that its students wouldn’t live there.
Studies have shown that the presence of a college, with its cultural activities and open spaces, raises property values. That doesn’t mean people want students living next door. Joan Flynn, senior vice president for administration at Loyola, warns the students that their behavior reflects on the college.
“You need to understand that you’re living here for one year; these folks are living here essentially for a lifetime,” she says. “The goal here is to be viewed as a contributing member of this community and not an element that diminishes the quality of life in this community.”
Efforts to smooth neighborhood relations are catching on at other colleges, says Beth Bagwell, executive director of the International Town-Gown Association. When students know their neighbors, it’s “harder to ignore the fact that Ms. Smith next door has a baby and she has to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning,” she says.
At the University of Colorado Boulder, some students living off campus are required to attend an orientation before they can collect their keys. They learn about the local nuisance law and hear about the community from a neighbor. Among the houses that have participated, Bagwell says citations for things like noise and property damage have dropped by half.
“So they were able to quantify the fact that this was a very successful program, and they’re still doing this,” she says.
Lake Walker’s Valerie Sirani isn’t sure. After a meet-and-greet with students from Towson University the week before, she was inundated with emails from neighbors complaining about a Saturday night party.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Beth Bagwell's position with the International Town-Gown Association. She is the association's executive director. The text has been corrected.