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What Exactly is a "Stealth Dorm"?

"Stealth Dorm" is a catch-all term for any house in a residential neighborhood that is occupied by four or more unrelated individuals. In the case of College Station, those individuals are usually college students. The negative effects of stealth dorms on neighborhoods are discussed in several other articles here, but there may be some confusion about what exactly constitutes a "stealth dorm." They come in at least four different types, each with their own negative effects on neighborhood integrity.

First, it is important to understand the difference between a "family" and "four unrelated individuals" as used in this article. A "family" consists of any number of related individuals. A single-parent household with four kids and an elderly uncle is a family, even though there are more than four people living in the house. Two grandparents with their daughter and her two kids is a family. It doesn't matter how many people live in a house as long as they are related by blood, marriage or other recognized relationship such as foster care.

Four unrelated individuals is the legal limit for occupancy of a detached home in College Station. This limit is frequently exceeded and is the cause of many of the problems associated with stealth dorms.

Rental Conversions

Rental Conversions are the original type of stealth dorm. These are detached houses designed and built for occupancy by families. Homeowners have always rented their homes for one reason or another but, in the 1990's with the advent of low interest rates, it became economically feasible for out-of-town parents to buy a home for their child (and succeeding children) to save on rental costs. It made even more economic sense for that student to have their friends stay in the house and pay rent to offset the cost of the home. Once the family's child(ren) graduated, continuing to rent the house to multiple college students provided a nice income stream and, thus, the house became a more-or-less permanent "stealth dorm" for the foreseeable future. Owner-occupants soon realized that by renting their house to multiple college students after moving out themselves gave them that same income stream.

Rental Conversions are the least damaging type of stealth dorm to neighborhood integrity because the structure of the house itself remains relatively unchanged. A family could just as easily rent the house as multiple college students. A family could also buy the house and occupy it with changes consistent with buying any other older home. A recent study of random streets in College Station shows that only about 3% of rented homes revert to owner-occupancy each year.

Rental Conversions are in virtually every neighborhood in College Station, regardless of location, age, deed restrictions or cost of the home. For instance Edelweiss Gartens had about 150 homes "go rental" from 2013 - 2019. It is likely that a large percentage of these conversions were rented by families and are, therefore, not "stealth dorms", but there is no way to determine that figure. The remaining types of stealth dorms, however, most commonly occur within a mile or two of the A&M Campus and are usually occupied by students.

Rental Modifications

In the 2000's it became popular for investors to buy homes and extensively modify them for rental use. The exteriors were largely left intact, but major interior modifications such as extra bathrooms were added. Large common areas of a typical single-family home (dens, garages) were converted to bedrooms and locks were added to bedroom doors as bedrooms began to be rented separately rather the whole house to a group of college friends. The main visual impact of Rental Modifications to the neighborhood was the paving of front yards for off-street parking.

Such modifications virtually ensure that the house will remain a high-occupancy rental for the foreseeable future. A family wanting to buy the house for their own occupancy would be faced with undoing many of the modifications, at what would probably be a prohibitive cost for a young family, IF the house were come on the market.

"Ag Shacks"

Ag Shack is the name of a company that was one of the first to build such structures in the 2000's and the term became generic for any similar construction. Ag Shacks are generally two-story, boxy buildings with at least five bedrooms. The fifth bedroom ostensibly included for visitors, but usually housing a full time resident. Bedrooms have separate locks and common areas and kitchens are minimal.

The impact of Ag Shacks on neighborhood integrity is extreme, beginning with the complete removal of an existing home. The Ag Shack's size, design and architecture are often completely at odds with surrounding homes. Some more recent structures have attempted to blend in a little better, but the basic structure and associated problems are the same. These structures are completely unsuited to occupancy by a family without massive modification, if that is even structurally or financially feasible, at all.

Multiple Structures

A very recent trend in stealth dorms is for investors/developers to raze the existing home on a large lot, replace it with a built-to-rent main house and add a "garage apartment" in the back yard. Ostensibly, the main house is limited to four unrelated individuals and the other structure to two. Exceeding these limits appears to be the rule rather than the exception. Unlike Ag Shacks, which are often built as cheaply as possible, these multiple structures appear to be rather high-end.

These structure not only destroy the original home, but fill the unique large lots in some older neighborhoods with an additional house and huge paved areas for parking. It is possible that these structures could be converted into high-end homes, but not likely.

Short Term Rentals

A subset of all these categories are Game Day Houses that began to appear in the 2000's. With game weekend rents in the thousands of dollars, it became financially feasible for an investor to buy a house and have it stay unoccupied for all but a few days per month. In recent years, grand game day homes have replaced single-family homes in near-campus neighborhoods. In lower-price neighborhoods, game day rentals have evolved into short-term rentals that can be rented at any time to as many people as requested through web-based apps. Currently, such rentals are illegal, but the City of College Station does not even know how prevalent they are, let alone enforce the ordinance.

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