When the inspector comes to call

Karen Mannix

Nothing scares a student living off campus like the sound of the doorbell. “When that thing rings, my heart literally skips a beat,” says Radnor Township resident Michelle Sullivan. Sullivan, like many students who reside in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus, lives illegally. Radnor Township has a town ordinance that limits occupancy to only two non-related persons per house. Sullivan lives with three other girls, none of whom are related, so their household falls in direct violation of the ordinance.

The problem is not that the house is too small for four people; it would be understandable to limit occupancy for safety reasons if that were the case. However, this particular house has three bedrooms, one of which is the entire third floor of the house. “It would be absurd for only two people to live in this house,” says Sullivan’s roommate Abby Smagula. “Not only is there room enough for four, but rent would be ridiculously expensive.”

The four girls split the $1600 per month equally; each pays $400, which is reasonable for rent in this area. If only two were to live in the house, each roommate would have to pay an astronomical $800 per month. “It’s Radnor, Pa., not New York City,” says Smagula.

This particular household is no stranger to the Radnor Township Inspector, whose job it is to enforce the ordinance. He has called upon them at least twice this year, with several other close calls in between. The girls consider themselves quite the experts in the field of dodging eviction. “The most important thing we learned was that you don’t have to let the inspector in the house unless he has a search warrant,” says Smagula. “Usually he will show up without one first and try to trick you into letting him into the house.” Smagula cites one time that the inspector told her roommate that they had a gas leak and he had to be let in to check it out. It turned out that the gas leak had been reported to the house across the street, and he was really at their house to check occupancy.

By turning the inspector away when he first shows up, the illegal residents are given a window of opportunity to cover their tracks. All evidence of their existence from beds to toothbrushes to clothes must be hidden. But where do you hide all of the belongings of two girls? “That’s when it gets interesting,” says Sullivan. The girls usually stack their mattresses and box springs to make two unusually tall beds out of four regular beds. “I sleep with my face about two inches from the ceiling,” Sullivan says. Smagula’s room is the smallest, so it becomes the “storage room.” Boxes, trash bags, cases of water, suitcases, anything that looks remotely “storeable” goes on the floor. All of her clothes, books, furniture and personal belongings are hidden throughout the rest of the house. If you open Sullivan’s closet, you would see Smagula’s dresser jammed in there sideways. “You really have to cover up pretty good,” Smagula says. “The inspector has definitely counted the toothbrushes in our bathroom before.”

The girls, like most students, would rather deal with all of this hassle than pay the price that violating the ordinance carries. It’s $300 if a household is caught with too many tenants and the inspector forces all of those who aren’t on the lease to move out. If he comes back and there is still evidence of too many occupants, another $300 fine is issued. If he comes back again, another $300 fine. The whole process could technically go on for months, which is something that tenants definitely want to avoid. “I’d rather be inconvenienced for a week than have to pay a bunch of fines,” says Smagula. It seems as though she and her roommates have little to worry about, however, the inspector may have met his match with these girls.