City Council ordinance limits new student rentals

By Erin Newton

Dinkytown: the student-dominated, semi-autonomous city surrounding the U of M famed for its nightlife. With about 2,000 undergraduates or more renting near its campus, some local residents fear that the neighborhood around St. Thomas could turn into its counterpart at the U. In response to constituent fears on the issue of over-dense student populations, St. Paul city councilmember Russ Stark has introduced an ordinance limiting student rentals. The proposed ordinance, if enacted, would require that all new student rental homes with three or more undergraduate students per unit be a minimum of 150ft from the nearest existing student rental. Current student-occupied homes would be ‘grandfathered,’ making them unaffected by the ordinance. John Hershey, the Neighborhood Liaison at St. Thomas, estimates that 350 student rentals are in the proposed moratorium. Hershey, a former women’s basketball coach at Mac, has lived in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood for the past 25 years. He is fully familiar with what he identifies as a straightforward conflict between differing routines and expectations. “It’s just the little things that add up. All a neighbor [thinks about or] really wants out of a college rental is two things: I’ve lived here for the past 25 years. I’m tired of going over and introducing myself every year. I just hope they’re quiet,” Hershey said. “After that, I just hope they don’t park in front of my house because that’s my parking space.” City Council and Residents’ Fears Hershey, who describes councilmember Stark as a friend, feels that the moratorium is largely driven by fear of the growing density of student rentals in his district. Constituents of councilmember Stark requested the ordinance, he suggested, because of concern over future neighborhood atmosphere as well as quality of life complaints. “Neighbors are contacting Stark and saying ‘I don’t want this to become another Dinkytown,’” Hershey said, referencing its student-heavy demographics. “They’re afraid of the neighborhood becoming dense student housing and that being all that’s there.” Chris Tolbert, another city councilmember representing Macalester’s campus, also sees neighbors’ concerns as stemming from the changing character of the neighborhood. He feels that residents’ desires for restrictions on student housing stem from worries of overly dense student populations like Dinkytown. “I’m a personal believer that the number of colleges we have in St. Paul greatly enhances the city and the community,” Tolbert said. “I do have concerns when you have a law that by and large targets student housing, when there are students who do add a lot to the community.” ‘Bad Behavior’ and ‘Quiet Lives’ Like Tolbert, Hershey identifies with both students and residents of the district. “Two summers ago my kids come home. One has just graduated, the other is a college sophomore. They’re sitting on my front porch at 11 p.m. Two of the girls have voices like foghorns. I love’em, but they’re loud,” Hershey said. When he asked them to move inside, his sons already knew where he was coming from. The girls, however, gave him a puzzled look that Hershey called ‘what’s this guy’s problem?’ “Next door there’s an unwed mother with two kids that have ADD,” he said. Pointing to a window 20ft away, he added “that’s where they’re sleeping. The moment they perceive that they go ‘oh, well of course we’ll go inside and be quieter.’” Others see the ordinance as driven by “bad behavior.” “When a family cannot sleep at night, sometimes night after night because of the loud, often drunken behavior that neighbors have had to live with, ordinances like this one are written — and sometimes passed,” said Tom Welna, Director of the High Winds Fund. “While it seems that a vast array of students merely cycle through their four- or five-year college career in ‘party houses’, I would argue that students… contribute to this neighborhood’s character and diversity,” said Kathy Kim ’12, outgoing Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) President. “In fact, most college students lead quiet lives.” David Hackworthy is the student senator with St. Thomas’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and to the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee (WSNAC). The advisory committee is at odds with USG, as the former largely supported the proposed ordinance and the latter passed a resolution against it. Hackworthy, who wrote the resolution, feels as though the ordinance establishes a ‘dangerous precedent’ for future measures aimed specifically at students, particularly St. Thomas students. “Community members have contacted council member Russ Stark,” Hackworthy said, “because many of them… see St. Thomas grow and expand, and [they] are trying to say enough is enough.” “I will concede that UST is the largest [college] in the area and has the most students in the neighborhood,” Hackworthy said. “But if the city thinks this is good policy, then they should extend it to all students. By only aiming [the ordinance] at UST it is singling out not only undergraduate students but [also] UST undergraduate students, and [it] is saying that us Tommies, and us Tommies alone, are the issue.” Reconciliation? Kim emphasized the need for building stronger connections with the community as a more sustainable solution, both for student government as well as the undergraduate community at large. Hackworthy struck a similar tone, noting that St. Thomas USG has made neighborhood relations among its top three initiatives for two years in a row. He lists a number of projects USG has undertaken to that end. “Sigma Chi Fraternity and the Dean of Students office [have a] Sunday Morning Pick-Me-Up of neighborhood trash; USG has distributed signs [for] student yards that remind students to be quiet as they walk through the neighborhood; WSNAC has hosted community dinners at UST with administrators, students, and unfortunately, a lack-luster neighborhood attendance,” Hachworthy said. Hackworthy also noted a number of other events, including a community Christmas concert at Orchestra Hall and a semesterly newsletter to community members advertising Tommie events on campus. “The fact is that the St. Thomas community has been conducting these programs and initiatives for the benefit of the community, and there has been little in the form of participation of neighbors and reciprocation in appreciation or patience,” Hackworthy said. Nevertheless, Welna feels that it is fair to target the Tommies. “[The ordinance’s] author and supporters will readily admit that it was written to deal with problems primarily generated by St. Thomas students,” Welna said. “Over the decades, UST just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and while it is good for UST’s financial bottom line, it has wreaked havoc on some of the blocks surrounding the university.” “2,000 UST students [live] in the neighborhood, compared to 350 for Macalester,” Welna added. “Why is it targeted at St. Thomas? Because their students are the biggest–but not [the] only–part of the problem for families living in the neighborhood.” Welna and Macalester Dean of Students Jim Hoppe have both noted an increase in the past couple years of complaints from residents about Macalester students. Both note that Macalester identifies tension between residents and the student body as a priority concern. “It’s been ages since we had a complaint from someone in the neighborhood,” Hoppe said. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen a police report or a police response to someone from a house rented by Mac students. Maybe they just didn’t call the police, but last year I would have had eight to a dozen calls by now.”
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