The problem of Towson University students throwing wild and disruptive parties in rental houses in the residential neighborhoods around campus is an old one. Community members have gone to great lengths over the years to deal with problem tenants, from tracking the license plate numbers of cars parked outside of houses to calling the cops. The county has enacted a rental registration program, and the university has changed its policies to hold students accountable for their behavior off-campus. But given the nature of college students — and the glaring mismatch between Towson's enrollment (22,000) and the number of beds in dorms (6,000) — the neighboring communities can't possibly have enough tools at their disposal to address the problem. As such, County Councilman David Marks' proposal for what's known as "social host" legislation is most welcome and deserves to be enacted.
Landlords have objected to the bill, saying there are already laws on the books that neighbors can use to stop out-of-control parties, but this legislation represents an important advance in two ways. First, it creates a system of civil penalties to deal with the behavior, which should be easier to enforce than the criminal ones now on the books. And second, it holds the landlords responsible for their tenants' behavior, which should encourage responsible rental practices.
Under existing law, neighbors can call the police to enforce ordinances against disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and public intoxication, among other offenses. But making arrests and filing charges on such offenses is cumbersome at best, and for that matter, both police and complaining residents may feel reluctant to saddle students with criminal records. Another county law allows sanctions — including the possible revocation of a rental license — on properties that have been the subject of three or more 911 calls during a six month period, but the onus is on the communities to track and pursue the matter.
Mr. Marks' bill, by contrast, would begin with a penalty of $500 for the host of an "unruly social gathering," which the legislation defines as a party that meets one or more of a list of criteria, including underage drinking, disturbance of the peace, the blockage of traffic, drug use, public intoxication and public urination. Penalties would escalate for subsequent offenses.
The legislation also holds landlords responsible. With the first offense, they would be given a warning, but the second comes with a $500 fine. A third violation could lead to higher fines and the suspension or revocation of a rental license. Advocates say they hope it never comes to that, but involving the landlords is important because tenants come and go, but they stay year after year.
Mr. Marks' bill may not solve all problems, but there is good reason to believe it can be effective. Academic studies in communities that have such laws have found evidence that they are associated with various benefits, including a reduction of drunken driving fatalities among minors. As such, social host laws like this one have been recognized by the federal government as a best practice to reduce underage drinking among college students.
There's also good anecdotal evidence to support it, namely that an almost identical policy has been in effect for six months just south of the targeted neighborhoods in the county. In Baltimore City, council members Mary Pat Clarke and Bill Henry were chief sponsors of similar legislation that went into effect this fall, and the results have been encouraging. The community association in the Lake Walker neighborhood just south of the city/county line, where large numbers of Towson and Loyola students live, sent the County Council a letter in support of Mr. Marks' bill, saying that after an initial round of $500 citations for renters shortly after the fall semester began, conflicts over noisy parties have dropped precipitously.
Ultimately, the answer to the long standing conflict between Towson students and the community will require more student-oriented housing on or near campus. The university included a call for thousands of new on-campus residential units in the mater plan it adopted last fall, though that process will take years. Private developers have shown interest in building student housing, though residents have in some cases raised traffic- and parking-related objections. But in the meantime, Mr. Marks' legislation could do significant good. His proposal would establish a three-year pilot program in a handful of neighborhoods, and we urge his colleagues and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to support it.