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USC-area neighborhoods speak out against student ‘party houses’

Trash piles up on the front porch of a house on Lee Street where students tend to live.
Trash piles up on the front porch of a house on Lee Street where students tend to live. mwalsh@thestate.com

The homes in the Old Shandon, Lower Waverly-MLK and University Hill neighborhoods – each a few blocks or less from the University of South Carolina – once were populated with a wide variety of families and homeowners in clean houses with groomed lawns.

Now, many of those families have moved away, and the neat lawns are often filled with empty and crushed beer cans, flattened party cups, fragmented beer bottles and empty kegs – all of it left over from loud, late-night parties thrown by the students who primarily reside in the blocks around Five Points.

“They are always having parties and music noise and the houses are overcrowded,” said 80-year-old Alfred Davis, who lives in Old Shandon. “It’s not even a neighborhood no more.”

It was in one of these homes, at 2319 Lee St., after another late-night party, that USC freshman 18-year-old Charlie Terreni Jr. was found dead last week. St. Patrick’s Day decorations were still hanging from the weekend and a keg sat on the front porch of the home.

Although the cause of death has not yet been released by the Richland County coroner’s office, Davis said he isn’t surprised that someone might have died as a result of the parties that have been held along his street.

“The way they carry on and the way they think, I feel like something was going to happen sooner or later, because they do so many outrageous things,” Davis said.

Davis said he will have lived in the neighborhood for 50 years this June. Flanked and fronted by large houses with USC students as tenants, Davis and his wife, Ernestine, are the only ones on that stretch of the block who aren’t renters. Their home sticks out, with a green lawn and flowers – absent cigarette butts, coolers and piles of trash bags found in front of many other homes.

“It’s nothing like it used to be at all,” Davis said. “This was a family neighborhood when I moved in. It turned a 360.”

Kathryn Fenner, vice president of the University Hill Neighborhood Association, said her neighborhood, too, is scattered with these homes. She believes that one of the reasons the homes have become party houses is because the landlords don’t live nearby.

“We have three prominent landlords in the neighborhood, and 90 percent of the rental properties are owned by them,” Fenner said. “We have had more of a problem with the ‘Brand X’ landlords: They own one house; they don’t have professional property management; they don’t have anybody on site. These three people live in the neighborhood; we know were they are. If we had a problem with their property, we could call them up.”

Fenner said one of the problems she ran into while working with the city’s code enforcement task force was hunting down the “slum” or problem landlords, many of whom didn’t live in the city. Since code enforcement agents would have to serve them in person, they often found themselves driving around the state only to find that they lived somewhere else in the nation.

“How do you serve someone in Arizona?” Fenner said. “We tried to get landlord registration” in the city, but some people opposed it. “We ultimately did not get landlord registration, but we did get a requirement that they have to have a business license if they have one unit. At least there is an address in any event for service.”

Those kinds of what Fenner calls “party houses” are often what goes bump in the middle of the night for the Davises. They said they are often awakened by the repeated thud of loud music and shouting coming from neighbors’ homes. Some nights, Davis said a congregation of anywhere from 50 to 100 young people gather at the houses and throw parties, especially during festival and game-day weekends.

Davis said one night he called the police three times, asking them to go to their neighbors’ house to quiet down a party. On the third call, Davis said a plainclothes officer told him he would do what he could, but he couldn’t promise Davis anything.

Ernestine Davis said that one time, one set of neighbors offered to send the Davises out to dinner so the students could have a small get-together that they said would be over by 7 or 8 p.m.

“Doesn’t that sound dumb to you?” she said. “We didn’t agree with that. We said ‘no.’ Why do I have to leave my house for you to have a party?”

Just across the street from the Davises, at 2412 Lee St., the remnants of a large beach-themed party from the St. Pat’s in Five Points weekend could still be seen in Frank Sarnowski’s backyard.

“You can smell the beer, can’t you?” Sarnowski said as he walked into his backyard, where just days before, partygoers were drinking and using the bathroom. “If I hadn’t yelled at them to clean it up – well, I would have cleaned it up anyway – but there would have been at least 100 beer cans out here.”

Sarnowski, who is a personal property appraiser for the state and has lived on the corner of Queen and Lee streets for 35 years, said an elderly couple once lived next to him, a teacher across the street and another couple who had been in their home since 1910. Now his neighbors have been replaced by students who he says are associated with Greek life at USC.

“They’re not very respectful of the more residential neighbors that live here,” Sarnowski said. But he acknowledges that at one time he was 20-something and liked to party.

Sarnowski said that if police began to show more presence in the area, the parties would not be as bad.

“They responded when I have called, and I think they do well once you call,” Sarnowski said. “I just don’t see their presence until someone calls. When you got 100 people standing in the street at two houses having a party, they should at least come by and check on it.”

Columbia police respond when called, they say.

But Alfred Davis said it is the fault of the city and the police that the party problem has gotten so bad. “Sometimes you get so tired of fighting it and leave it alone,” Davis said. “I call the police a lot, but sometimes I just give up because there is no point of me fighting it.”

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