CHAPEL HILL – Imagine being fined a thousand dollars or even being evicted from your home for violating a rule you never knew existed.

It’s scary—and according to UNC student body president Christy Lambden, it’s happening right here in Chapel Hill.

“If I was to estimate, I would have said that I’ve had over 50 students come and talk to me with regards to this,” he says. “Not all of them (are) saying that they have been evicted, obviously, but all of them (are) having various stories about the town ordinance.”

The town ordinance in question is one that’s existed for years—banning more than four unrelated individuals from cohabiting in the same residence. Town officials last month said they were stepping up enforcement of that policy, in response to complaints from residents.

The law is designed to address a variety of problems that have arisen from the scarcity of housing in downtown Chapel Hill. With on-campus housing limited, students for years have taken up residence in rental houses in the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods, often grouping as many people into a single unit as possible. That in turn led to complaints about students holding loud parties, parking their cars on lawns, and failing to take care of their trash—and those complaints led Town Council to act.

The ordinance imposes a $100-per-day fine for the first offense, with penalties going up to $500 per day for subsequent violations. Those fines are actually imposed on the owner of the house, but Lambden says those landlords have been passing the fines onto their tenants.

“The stories that I’ve heard have been that landlords have got a $1000 fine for having more than four unrelated people living in a house,” he says, “and they’ve turned around and said to the students living in the house that they’re going to need to front the money to pay for that bill, because they’re the ones benefiting from it.”

And on Thursday, Lambden told the UNC Board of Trustees he’d heard “multiple stories” of students even being evicted altogether.

“We are devoting considerable effort into looking into the current policy, making students aware of their rights as tenants, and ending the predatory habits of landlords that knowingly allow their students to break the ordinance and ultimately pass fines along to them when discovered,” he said at the meeting.

At Town Hall, not everyone is a strong defender of the current ordinance. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says he’s long believed it’s a “blunt” way of dealing with issues that should be better addressed.

“For me the real issues are parking, trash, noise – (things) that sometimes particularly people who rent for short periods may not be as concerned about,” Kleinschmidt says. “And I think those are the issues. I don’t think the fact that there are more than four people living in a home – (and) particularly any inquiry into their relationship status – is necessarily relevant to whether they’re loud, whether they park their cars all over the front yard, (or) if they bring the trash can back in.”

And Town Council in 2012 did enact a more specific ordinance limiting the number of cars that could park on a lot in Northside and Pine Knolls.

“Nonetheless, that is the ordinance in town,” Kleinschmidt says. “Enforcement is driven largely by complaint. And the student body and landlords have long known about this.”

But while the Town has stepped up its efforts to educate citizens about local housing policies, Lambden says a lot of students—including many who live off campus—have still never heard of this ordinance.

“I don’t think most students do know, which is something that we really need to work on,” he says. “We need to make sure that students do know, if there’s a town ordinance in place, that they need to observe that.”

And Kleinschmidt says much of the responsibility falls on the landlords—who, he says, know full well the ordinance exists.

“The injustice that’s happening here, I think, is that landlords are allowing this to happen,” he says. “I mean, they’re putting people in a position where they’re at risk of losing their home. And I think that’s where the villain is. There isn’t a landlord in town who doesn’t know about this town ordinance – and they may agree with me that it’s inartful and hamfisted and imprecise and not narrowly tailored, but it’s the law nonetheless, and they’ve known about it for quite some time.”

Whether the town will revisit the law in the future remains to be seen. The ordinance is only slightly stricter than the state fire code, which prohibits more than six unrelated people from living in the same residence.

Mayor Kleinschmidt says he might be willing to take a second look at the policy either way—though he says town officials might be better able to respond to students’ concerns if they had a closer relationship with Lambden, as they had with previous student body presidents.

“I wish (Lambden) would actually respond to an invitation that I’ve had out to him for a long time to actually discuss this and other issues he might want to talk about,” Kleinschmidt says. “But we haven’t been successful at establishing (a connection) or having any kind of a meeting.”

In any event, it’s worth noting that the housing situation could actually be worse: while more than 60 percent of UNC students live off campus, 55 percent of UNC’s undergrads actually live on campus—a far cry from many of UNC’s peer institutions, where more than half of undergrads often live off campus as well.