Chapel Hill and Carrboro could take a page from Davis, California’s playbook and bring college students into community and conversation with longterm resident neighbors at an annual “neighbors’ night out” event.

I was struck by a recent NextDoor post about the specter of college student neighbors. These fearsome figures are often invoked in discussions of Chapel Hill housing, though they don’t seem to be invited into those conversations to speak for themselves very regularly. 

Image of an excerpt from a post on NextDoor which states: “However, given we live so close to campus the likely impact of these amendments is that house could be replaced by a duplex/triplex/fourplex and rented out to college students. In fact, the house was rented to college freshmen recently. In addition to the late-night noise, underage drinking and driving, inconsiderate parking on our front lawn, and litter, one afternoon I looked out the kitchen window and saw likely inebriated, underage male college freshmen relieving themselves against the side of that house during the backyard kegger in broad daylight. We endured the students as neighbors largely out of fear of potential retaliation. After all, if inebriated, underage college freshmen are going to relieve themselves outdoors in broad daylight in a residential neighborhood full of adults who could call the Town police, what would they do to us if we ratted them out?”The particular students featured in this post littered, couldn’t park, and were apparently prone to driving drunk (word still out on how their neighbor is measuring the BAC of passing drivers while peeking from between the blinds). Who knows how much of this would go uncontested by those described — maybe there’s a corresponding YikYak post out there about older neighbors who stare at someone’s rented house all day, engage in wild stereotyping, and can be seen glaring and typing on their phones while swilling cocktails.

Jokes aside, it is possible that these student neighbors did these things. I regularly see college students behave badly. (I also see other people behave badly and college students act as model citizens, but I digress.) But the really unbelievable part was that, for this poster, there were only two possible ways of handling a situation where adult neighbors were acting in an unpleasant way. 

  1. Call the police (and apparently risk possible retaliatory public urination)
  2. Endure (and commit to opposing multi-family housing)

This was striking to me, a teacher of college students who regularly gets them to adjust their behavior without engaging the police or becoming victim to retaliatory bodily functions. Assuming these students were really littering and urinating with abandon, I wondered how else their behavior might be influenced. Most of all, I wondered if they would be acting that way in the first place if they associated names and faces and schedules with their neighbors, instead of “adults who could call the Town police.”

I still remember renting in college, in a town 3,000 miles away with remarkably similar housing concerns. Davis, California is small, agricultural, and home to state university University of California, Davis and upwards of 30,000 students between October and June. It has restrictive zoning laws and a housing crunch driven partially by yearly increases in university enrollment as the system struggles to fill increasing gaps in state funding with tuition dollars. This should sound very familiar. But when we college students rented in suburban neighborhoods in Davis, we knew our neighbors’ names

I’m sure we knew them because we had many late-night and event-planning conversations like “Oh, I’ll close the window if we’re putting music on. Tim said they can hear it in their bedroom if it gets loud at this end of the house,” and “Can you try not to park in front of the place across the street? That’s Barbara and John’s house, and they’re really nice, but they asked us to leave a spot open because John needs to be able to back out and get to work at 5 am each morning.”

We knew their names because they were willing to speak to us like adults and neighbors, but also because Davis hosts an annual event that Chapel Hill and Carrrboro could stand to imitate. Davis Neighbors’ Night Out (DNNO) is an annual citywide event co-organized by the City of Davis, the university, and the student government of UC Davis. Denizens of the town, from senior citizens to students, host potlucks, cookouts, and street-corner gatherings each year on a designated October evening. Events are publicly listed on a community map for all to attend.

This may astonish some NextDoor posters, but as undergraduates, my immediate social circle was always eager to host and attend DNNO events with our older home-owning neighbors. Like many people in their late teens and early twenties, we were anxious and excited to demonstrate our mastery of adult behaviors, practice grownup social skills, and defy stereotypes about college students. It was a relief to connect with older people after missing our parents for weeks and months.

You might be surprised by how many of your college student neighbors in Chapel Hill and Carrboro feel the same. UNC’s campus has seen an overwhelming response to “Free Mom Hugs” and other parent and older adult support events for students. My own students are invested in learning about community history and housing issues – many of them propose research projects about Northside gentrification and want to learn more about this community. 

The consensus seems to be that living near students is undesirable. I get it — I’m old now too. Just like many of you, I would like to go to bed at 10:30 without hearing yelling or music, and I too have been known to mutter “youths” occasionally while navigating Franklin Street traffic. But students aren’t a monolith; they’re just people (and adults themselves, by the way) and they might surprise you if you give them the chance.

If Chapel Hill homeowners can muster the energy to build coalitions, attend town meetings, post surveillance notes online, and coordinate legal action against town zoning changes, I bet they could reach out to the university and student government to get a new tradition rolling. An annual Neighbor’s Night Out event could be the opportunity everyone needs to open these conversations, build community connections, and (apparently) reduce the risks of public urination.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Jillian Kern is a Chapel Hill resident and renter, teacher, avid naturalist and outdoors-meanderer, and PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the department of English and Comparative Literature.