Proposal on Three-Person Rule Project

For my final project, I intend to investigate the role and function of the three-person rule, a zoning rule restricting housing to no more than three unrelated people, in Williamsburg. This ordinance has repeatedly caused controversy in the community, particularly in regard to the centrally-located College of William & Mary and its students who live off-campus. No other work has been completed for the Williamsburg Documentary Project concerning this subject as far as I can find; however, as such ordinances are common nationally, prior studies concerning the topic should be available as well.

In raising the topic, I aim to answer several research questions, some of which apply broadly to zoning’s relation to the community while others apply more specifically to Williamsburg and the various players in the enforcement of the rule. Larger questions include: what is the final goal of the three-person rule? What kind of communities does it want to create? What perceived needs does the three-person rule respond to? Answering these questions could rely on other scholarship surrounding city planning, but those resources have yet to be found. Beyond these more broad-based questions, more specific queries related to the enforcement of the rule and the main players within that enforcement are also necessary. While the situation often is pitched as a conflict between tenants and the city, landlords prove critical in their choices surrounding the enforcement or non-enforcement of the rule. What is their role? How do they negotiate the rule, both in their relations to the city and to their tenants? Alternately, from the governmental perspective, how does the city enforce the rule, particularly when tenants are living in the space? If the rule is violated, who is punished? Are there any exceptions to the rule and how does a landlord receive an exception?

To answer these questions and any more that my research may precipitate, I plan to gather information from a variety of sources. The actual city ordinances for the three-person rule, as well as additional surrounding ordinances and rules indicating the kinds of communities Williamsburg wants to create, will provide the foundation for the project. News coverage of the rule’s surrounding controversies as well as materials from William & Mary’s Residence Life office about off-campus housing could also prove useful.

I will gather the majority of my information, however, from oral interviews with people serving in the three main roles with regard to the rule: city officials, tenants, and landlords. Rod Rhodes in the City Planning Office, who deals primarily with the three-person rule, should prove to be a helpful resource. Students, male and female aged between 18-22, living off-campus in situations that either adhere to or violate the ordinance will also be interviewed. Ideally, unrelated non-students living together in Williamsburg will also be available to broaden the project’s reach to the wider Williamsburg community rather than restricting it to a contest between William & Mary students and the city. Most critical, however, will be the participation of landlords to better determine their role in enforcing or not enforcing the ordinance.

Securing the participation of landlords and tenants in violation of the rule could prove problematic, in either gaining their approval to be interviewed or with possible repercussions after their participation has been completed. As such, measures will be taken to protect their identities. Pseudonyms and general descriptions of their living quarters and/or properties, as opposed to specific descriptions that could belie their true identity, will be used. If the subject chooses to remain totally anonymous, that decision will be honored as well. Further protection strategies, if necessary, will be determined at a future date in concert with Professor Lelievre and other standard identity protection procedures.

Methodology could prove to be another challenge. My coming from a student perspective could bias my research; as such, a grounded theory approach will be used instead of the traditional scientific method in order to avoid potential confirmation bias toward findings favourable to students and other tenants. The grounded theory approach attempts to remove myself from that mindset and obtain relevant findings without coloring them with prior assumptions.

When finally completed, my study will prove relevant not only to Williamsburg, but to other similar contexts as well. Many jurisdictions have this kind of rule limiting the number of unrelated tenants. While Williamsburg, like any other town, has a specific context, the overarching findings could apply to other locations in describing matters of city ordinance enforcement and landlord relations there. Once finished, I will share the results of my project with interviewees if they request it during our meeting, and will inform them of the project’s final location in Special Collections at Swem Library.

Chiglinsky, Katherine.

2012  What’s the Future of the Three-Person Rule? The Flat Hat, February 6: News.

The Flat Hat (Williamsburg, VA)

2009  3-Person Rule to Stay in City’s Proposal. The Flat Hat, October 16: Uncategorized.

The Flat Hat (Williamsburg, VA)

2009  4-Person Rule in B-3 District. The Flat Hat, November 20: Uncategorized. 11/20/72211/.

The Flat Hat (Williamsburg, VA)

2009  Commission Decides Against 4-Person Proposal. The Flat Hat, September 25, Uncategorized:

The Flat Hat (Williamsburg, VA)

2008  Staff Editorial: Outrageous Rental Plan. The Flat Hat, January 22: Editorial: staff-editorial-outrageous-rental-plan/.

The Flat Hat Editorial Board

2012  A Balanced Solution: The Future of the Three-Person Rule. The Flat Hat, November 12: Editorial.

The Flat Hat Editorial Board

2013  Cooperation Is Key: City Council’s 2013 Comprehensive Plan Will Benefit Both The College And The City. The Flat Hat, January 21: Opinions. williamsburg-city-council-comprehensive-plan-housing/.

The Flat Hat Editorial Board

2013  End Antiquated Rule. The Flat Hat, April 21: Editorial. williamsburg-city-council-three-person-rule/.

The Flat Hat Staff

2007  Staff Editorial: Housing Hypocrisy in the City of Williamsburg. The Flat Hat, February 20: Editorial.

Kennedy, Amber Lester.

2013  Citizens Turn Out to Push Approval of City Comp Plan. WY Daily, January 11.

Needham, James.

2013  Proposed City Law Lets B&B Owners Hire Live-In Managers. WY Daily, November 21.

WY Daily Staff.

Planning Comm. Doesn’t Like 4-Person Rule. WY Daily, September 23.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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