Town-gown relations in some Durham neighborhoods have been put on shaky ground as residents raise complaints against the behavior of Duke’s fraternities.

Durham Neighborhoods United—a group formed in 2014 due to frustration over fraternity parties in residential neighborhoods—has been advocating for stricter enforcement of University and city ordinances at fraternity members' off-campus houses. The city of Durham has recently launched an investigation into several fraternities houses, including residences on Vickers Avenue and Chapel Hill Street, for violations of zoning ordinances and other restrictions.

Alisa Johnson, who has spearheaded the DNU project, noted that the organization is designed to target the specific disturbances that some residents feel are created by fraternity houses.

"Our goal was to come together and find a way to quiet these disruptive houses using applications of ordinances and to find other tools to quiet these houses,” said Johnson, who works at Meredith College in Raleigh as an English professor.

For some local residents, fraternity houses are more than just irksome. Neighbors describe everything from frequent sleepless nights to consistent trash issues as factors that have made their house location frustrating.

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for seven years, and every year we’ve had some fraternity and every year we’ve struggled with being up late,” said Loralie Bible, who lives near one of the houses under investigation on Vickers Avenue. “Often times I’ve had to be outside at three in the morning asking people to be quiet or not throw trash in my yard. I think we would have reconsidered if we had known we were moving next door to a house that was habitually rented by a fraternity.”

In addition to the house on Vickers Avenue, DNU has flagged twenty houses who they feel have been disruptive to the neighborhood—including houses on Burch Avenue, Chapel Hill Road and Norwood Avenue.

“Not all of the houses are equally rowdy,” Johnson noted. “But they are all on the list because they have held what appeared to be fraternity related events that were loud and disruptive at one point in the past.”

Depending on how disruptive the houses' residents have been, they have been dealt with by different groups—from neighbors to Duke administrators to city officials. Bible noted that the fraternities have not always been inclined to cease their activities when asked by neighbors.

“It depends on the individual group of students,” Bible said. “But in previous years when we have spoken with different groups of students, they often nod and agree and promise to remain respectful, but then it just doesn’t happen.”

But when Duke's Office of Student Affairs has gotten involved, the behavior often stopped, Bible said.

Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said disciplinary action has been taken against some individuals accused of disruptive behavior. The administration's focus, however, is on reforming the behavior, rather than simply punishing the students.

“Members of the Student Affairs office might go and visit these houses,” Wasiolek said. “They let them know that a subsequent complaint may result in disciplinary action. Our process is to really give the students the benefit of the doubt before any action is taken, to give them a chance to change their behavior.”

Duke has also communicated with the city on the topic. For example, in an email to City Manager Tom Bonfield on Jan. 27, Phail Wynn—vice president of Durham and regional affairs—recommended that the city investigate the house on Vickers Avenue.

“Student Affairs staff have identified, called in and met individually with eight residents of [address redacted],” Wynn wrote in the email. “I think Neighborhood Improvement Services should aggressively pursue occupancy code violations by the landlord.”

Johnson said DNU aims to bring these fraternity houses to the attention of as many city and school officials as possible to spur change on the issue.

“We have created a protocol that the neighbors are using as a way to address the problems with the houses,” Johnson said. “Part of the protocol is to call the police, call Neighborhood Improvement Services, call the Office of Student Affairs and then at a certain point to write a detailed letter to an email list including city officials, so that the letter becomes public record.”

This system has brought the city to consider the issue more seriously. City Council member Don Moffitt noted that Durham has taken up the issue with a greater sense of urgency since DNU started this protocol.

“What the DNU has done is to help the city departments in these issues to understand the scale and scope of the problem,” Moffitt said. “Previously, a complaint might have been prioritized as important but not urgent. Now, with the understanding of the scale and scope, those complaints are prioritized as more of important and urgent."

The City-County Planning Department is looking into some of these flagged houses. Department Director Steven Medlin indicated that they are conducting an investigation into the violation of Durham ordinances.

“For occupancy, you can have no more than three unrelated individuals living in that dwelling unit, that could be an occupancy issue,” Medlin said. “If it is being operated as a fraternity house, where you’re having functions of the fraternity occurring, there are specific ordinance standards, and in most cases they will require a minor special use permit.”

Medlin made clear that the department is not investigating the actual parties, however.

“Like any property owner, you have the right to have parties,” Medlin said. “Just because there are fraternity members there, as long as it is not advertised or operated as a fraternity, then it would not be a violation of the zoning regulations. That is more of a police issue.”

City Council member Steve Schewel noted that if violations were found, the students would not be the ones penalized—rather, the landlord would be found responsible.

“The landlord actually gets fined,” said Schewel, a visiting assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy. “The pressure on the students is in a way kind of indirect.”

Schewel added that he sees what is occurring as largely a behavioral issue, but that he is optimistic there is room for improvement.

“Duke students understand what decent behavior is, and they just need to engage in it,” Schewel said. “If that doesn’t happen, the city and University needs to enforce [their] laws and regulations to help them behave.”

The Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life declined to comment.