Student housing ordinance approved over summer

By Kyle Coombs

When Macalester and St. Thomas students returned to Grand Ave. this fall, Merriam Park was not as they had left it. Whereas off-campus students used to live wherever they could afford, a new Student Housing Ordinance now restricts student housing in the schools’ surrounding neighborhood. The ordinance, passed by St. Paul City Council on June 27 and put into effect on August 7 of this year, creates a zoning overlay in the Macalester-Groveland and Merriam Park neighborhoods. Owners of single-family and duplex homes within the overlay cannot rent to students if these houses are within 150 feet of existing or new student homes. Existing student homes will be grandfathered into the overlay if they are registered with the Department of Safety and Inspection before December 5. The city defines student housing as “a one or two family dwelling requiring a Fire Certificate of Occupancy in which at least one unit is occupied by at least three, but not more than four students.” The ordinance defines a student as anyone enrolled in a higher learning institution for the previous, upcoming or current term. City Councilmember Russ Stark, who represents most of the two affected neighborhoods, advocated in favor of the ordinance in a statement made on July 26. “In recent years the number of houses rented to students has greatly increased to nearly half of residential blocks near campuses,” Stark wrote. “Nearly 56 percent of St. Thomas students live off-campus and 1,700 students live within a mile of campus. This makes non-student homeowners nervous.” “Many of the remaining homeowners on these blocks are anxious to move,” he said. “And investors wanting to rent to students are the primary interested buyers of these properties, creating a cycle that ultimately leads to student rental-dominated blocks.” He is worried the surrounding neighborhoods will go the way of Dinkytown, a neighborhood next to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus that transitioned from a mix to nearly 70 percent student residents in the last few decades. “A great deal of effort is now being made to undo the problems in Dinkytown – buildings that have fallen into disrepair and a neighborhood that no longer feels like a neighborhood, but simply an extension of a college campus,” Stark wrote. Students and the ordinance
Many students claim that the ordinance will prove ineffective. “Being in college means, for a lot of people, that they’re going to go party and you can’t stop off-campus parties, you just can’t,” Jonas Buck ’13 said. “We’ve continued to prove that despite ordinances, there will still be large gatherings off campus.” Stark authored a Student Host Ordinance in 2010 that holds residents responsible for police-reported underage drinking within the home. Buck referred to this as an example of a failed ordinance and advocated that students take greater responsibility for the effect their choices have on the neighborhood. “I think citizenship is a good starting place for how students can more properly go about their lifestyles,” Buck said. He added that he was unhappy to hear that the ordinance was passed when most students were away from campus between semesters. “There was clear student displeasure at both the process by which that ordinance was passed as well as the content of the ordinance,” he said. “I think the ordinance itself is a direct target at students who were not involved at all in the decision-making process.” Stark argued that the ordinance does not directly ban students from living in the surrounding neighborhoods. “The ordinance should not shrink the supply of housing available to area college students,” he wrote in the statement. “Existing student rentals are grandfathered in and new ones are still allowed 150 feet or more from existing ones.” Andrew Hasek, a junior at St. Thomas, has been very vocal in his opposition to the ordinance. Since July he has met with landlords and written opinion pieces for theStar Tribune and The Villager. He would like to create a coalition of affected students from area schools against the ordinance. “[The name is] Students Against the St. Paul Housing Ordinance,” he said. “We’re trying to get rid of [the ordinance], but at the same time trying to better neighborhood relations.” He has started promoting community clean up days to pick up garbage left by St. Thomas students. “[We’re] promoting good behavior,” Hasek said. “We’re keeping noise levels down, we’re still looking for ways to do this. Right now this is kind of a jumpstart.” MCSG President Patrick Snyder ’13 said that he hopes to promote initiatives similar to those Hasek put forward. “One of the main themes this year with student government is trying to find pragmatic, direct ways to get involved in the communities around us,” Snyder said. Snyder plans to organize an Off-Campus Issues Committee in the near future comprised of students living on and off campus. The committee will promote events in the surrounding neighborhood through on-campus publicity and encourage students to get involved in neighborhood events, meetings and possibly publications. “I don’t really know what form it’s ultimately going to take,” he said. “But I’m hoping that at the very least people start some sort of conversation with the neighbors, figure out who these ‘neighbors’ are at least by attending meetings, talking to people. And I think that really can go a long way.” Alongside students, several administrators have voiced concern over the ordinance. St. Thomas Vice President Doug Hennes “repeatedly has said St. Thomas was singled out and the city should have looked at density around other city universities,” the Star Tribune reported on June 27. The institution has not attempted to overturn the decision. “We will live with it and move on,” Hennes told the Star Tribune. At Macalester, both President Brian Rosenberg and Dean of Student Affairs Jim Hoppe expressed concern over the ordinance, but advised students to work on community relations first. “I do not think it was a good idea,” Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail. “But I have not been very involved directly in the process.” Rosenberg added that he agreed with the advice St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman gave at convocation: “mutual familiarity would create stronger relationships.” Hoppe stressed that students explore the primary motivations for the ordinance, including the density of student rentals on a given block. “Parties, noise, etc. are a part of that, but not all,” Hoppe wrote in an email. “Helping find a better way to solve the problem is the key to making a change.” In an opinion piece published in the Star Tribune the day the ordinance went into effect, Hasek stated that the ordinance unfairly regulates the property rights in the overlay district. This regulation disrupts the housing market by keeping homeowners from opening up new spaces to meet future housing demands as enrollment increases. “Students place a high premium on property close to campus and might very well pay a higher price in rent than a family would for the same property,” Hasek wrote. “It is conceivable, then, that the seller [would] receive less than if the ordinance were not in place.” Stark wrote that the benefit of this regulation outweighed the inefficiency created by the regulation. “I stand firmly behind the idea that this impact is outweighed by the potential upside of a more stable, balanced community,” Stark wrote. Hasek added that limiting the supply will increase the rent that students pay or cause them to move outside of the district. He said he has seen ads around St. Thomas for rental spaces outside of the overlay district. “It is pushing the problem outside east and toward Highland Park, making this neighborhood problem everyone else’s problem as well,” he said. Rosenberg also spoke to his experience as a non-student resident living near campus. “Occasionally it gets noisy at night near the house,” he said. “But I of course never
know whether these are Mac Students or some other group. It has never been a major problem.” refresh –>