The problem with the problem of student housing

The Grand Avenue "student dwelling" where I lived for a few years after college. I paid $200 / month for a tiny bedroom. Because I was dead broke, it was practically heaven.

On the whole, universities are a great thing for cities. They’re like modern day factories. They generate many economic benefits, providing jobs, attracting young people, fostering “innovation”, and other  cultural linkages and synergies. Without its schools and universities (The U, Macalester, St. Thomas, Augsburg, St. Catherine’s, Metro State, and more) the Twin Cities would well on its way to becoming an irrelevant elderly backwater.

But universities also generate tensions, particularly for the areas surrounding campuses. These “town/gown” issues are familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in a near a college. Complaints over hegemonic institutional expansion, student noise, or density are as old as Harvard. The latest such battle happens to be in St Paul surrounding the University of St Thomas, a medium-size, private, historically Catholic University located in one of city’s nicer neighborhoods (right near the fancy homes along Summit Avenue and the Mississippi River). St Thomas has become the flash point for a really interesting battle over student housing.

The issue dates back a few years. Some time ago, particularly during the real estate bubble, homeowners near the school noticed increasing numbers of homes being converted from “single family” homes into homes occupied by university students. The way I understand it, sometimes a student’s parents would buy the home and let the student rent it out to some of their friends. Other times, a landlord would buy the home and rent it out to students looking for affordable housing near campus. Either way, homeowners started complaining to their City Council Member, who eventually passed a temporary “moratorium” on new student housing pending a city study to be presented to the Planning Commission. (Note: I am a member of the St Paul Planning Commission as of January.)

Presently, the issue revolves around St Thomas student behavior, and the idea that students inherently cause problems. As the city staffer explained it the public presentation, there are many lifestyle differences between the “typical family” and a home of students. While a typical family house has 2 adults (with 2 cars), a student house has 3-4 adults (with 3-4 cars).* Likewise, in a typical family house the “comings and goings are at regular hours,” while for a student house the coming and goings “are more likely to have a schedule of later nights.” Finally, there is the issue of alcohol and merriment, which should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a college film. Everyone who lives anywhere near St Thomas (or near any university) will have a story to tell about something stupid happening.

After the moratorium was passed, the city has finally completed their study:

The city's process.

 

The final proposal by the planning department involves a “student housing neighborhood impact overlay district,” which would do two things never done before in St Paul or Minneapolis. First, it would define student dwellings: a “student” is an “individual who is enrolled in or has been accepted to an undergraduate degree program at a univeristy, college, community college, technical college, trade school or similar.”

The city has never tried to “keep track” of students before, but will to begin doing so, in order to identify  “student dwellings”, or  homes “in which at least one unit is occupied by three or more students.” (From my understanding, this would involve actually going door-to-door and asking people if they are students or not.)

Second, the overlay district requires that any new student dwelling be at least 150 feet from the next student dwelling, creating a buffer between student-occupied homes. In theory, this would spreading them out through the neighborhood, making the experience more tolerable for neighbors.

 

The map of student dwellings, according to two preliminary studies.

 

The planning commission is hearing public testimony on the overlay district at the next meeting on May 4th. But in even just releasing the  study for public comment, there was debate over the potential impacts of the ordinance. As described in the Highland Villager, some commissioners (myself included) raised questions about whether the study was rushed,  the “grandfathering in” of existing student homes, about pushing students farther away from campuses, bad north-south transit, and the lack of student participation in community processes. It became clear that the city is acting more quickly on this process than they normally would for something with such broad impact.

As I’ve thought more about this issue, the proposed ordinance appears troublesome within the larger context of the Twin Cities. As reported in a few different places this month, we have some of the lowest rental vacancy rates anywhere in the country. Rental housing is difficult to find, and very expensive. Meanwhile, proposed apartment developments (particularly in areas with single family homes and/or political connections) are fought by neighbors. Any developer attempting to increase density must prepare themselves for a contracted battle over parking, noise, property values, blotting out the sun, or general agoraphobia.

On top of that, restricting rental housing in favor of “single family”  lifestyles doesn’t fit with long-term demographic trends. Check out the MetCouncil’s latest report. For decades, demand has declined for traditional nuclear family homes. More people are single, and people have fewer children. Empty nesters want smaller simpler housing options. Traditional single family homes are not the future of the Twin Cities, and we should think twice about placing blanket restrictions on density.

For me, though, the main issue is whether or not it’s ethically acceptable to legally limit where a certain types of people can live. Just because students are an “unprotected class” who are “generally transient” (as the city planner informed the commission), doesn’t mean they’re not equal citizens, and aren’t entitled to the same rights as anyone else. The whole thing reminds me of some of the more shameful moments of US urban history, things like restrictive covenants and redlining. There’s no way that we would single out a group of people according to race, class, religion, or sexual orientation, limiting where they could live. Why is it OK to do this with students?

I’m all for the enforcement of noise ordinances, and the city should be working on issues of housing maintenance (e.g. trash in the yard, height of the grass, etc.). I just don’t think the city should be involved with policing people’s lifestyles. Should St Paul be a city where going to sleep at 10:00 is written into the city code?

These issues aren’t just a problem for St Paul either. Neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota are  notorious for opposing students. The Marcy-Holmes neighborhood association has some very strict restrictions on who can participate in their community meetings, and the Prospect Park neighborhood has gone to great lengths to attempt to control where “density” will be built along University Avenue.

As a former and current student, and as someone who has spent years teaching undergraduates, I know that most undergraduates are worried about their future. They’re taking out big loans, and the last thing they need is higher rent located farther from school. Meanwhile, students are an easy target. They don’t go to community meetings, and if the Voter ID amendment passes, they’ll find it difficult to vote.

At Streets.mn, we’re trying to figure out ways to create better urban environments, to foster a city with a diverse commercial corridors,  good transit, street life, and density. It’s not helpful when apartments are expensive, restricted, and difficult to obtain. If rents here are the same price as rents in Chicago, how many potential Twin Cities young people are going to opt to stay? How many young, creative people will leave the Twin Cities behind, in search of a city that doesn’t zone their lifestyles out of existence?

 

 * Incidentally, I’m not sure that the assumption about cars is true. The large majority of my graduate student colleagues do NOT own automobiles. Most undergraduates probably don’t have cars either. Lots of students take the bus, bike, or walk to where they’re going. And that’s really good for cities, for transit, for density, for healthy lifestyles, etc. The proposed ordinance would seem to make it more difficult for people to choose a car-free lifestyle.

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8 Responses to The problem with the problem of student housing

  1. The Sometimes Planne April 24, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    This is a perfect example of how the tools of planning are not always utopian. They can both give you the density you desire and afflict restrictions of market choice. It is perhaps more surprising that these overlays were not instituted decades ago as this "problem" like you said has existed since time immemorial.

    However I want to argue that your final point is a rather lazy one. The Twin Cities rental market is unlike Chicago. The majority of rental housing is "old", not new, so don't look at those shiny new buildings for pro forma comparisons. And while zoning restrictions can influence rent over time due to availability, that effect is only seen when large swaths of urban areas are affected. The fact of the matter is that more neighborhoods in Mpls and StPl outside of the core collegiate areas could use an infusion of student renters. The overemphasis on densifying around the colleges has misdirected investment that could better improve and stimulate outlying neighborhoods which are degrading.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 24, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

      well, i'd just suggest reading those pieces i linked to about a really tight rental market in the TC. whenever i hear what my students are paying to live near the U of MN campus, i'm kind of shocked. its not cheap, even though the housing is really substandard.

      another angle to think about is that rental housing for students should be concentrated around the campuses. we want students to walk / bike / bus to school. maybe the university LRT will start spreading students and young people out along that corridor, as it's well-connected to the U of MN campus… i've nothing against it, but placing blanket limits on students living near campuses seems counter-productive.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel April 24, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

      "The overemphasis on densifying around the colleges has misdirected investment that could better improve and stimulate outlying neighborhoods which are degrading."

      What outlying neighborhoods are you referring to?

      The moratorium is aimed at St. Thomas (and to a smaller degree, Macalaster). The outlying neighborhood south is Highland Park, and they are fine; North is University Ave / Union Park, which is seeing development from the Central Corridor. Not sure of your issue here.

      All these neighborhoods in St. Paul (Mac-Grove, Highland, Merriam Park) could use density. The demand is there. We need to start by intensifying the areas where the demand exists. No point in doing what suburbs do, which is to add density by allowing multi-family units to exist by the interstate exits. Let's add moderate density, strategically, in areas where we can.

      I'd argue that density would be a very positive thing here – it could really relieve the burden of students using single family homes in the neighborhood.

  2. Andrew April 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Your "final report" link just goes to a meeting agenda — is the actual report publicly available?

    I am particularly interested in the details of implementing this 150 ft restriction. As you describe it, a "student dwelling" is defined by attributes of the occupants rather than attributes of the property itself. If this is the case it may have some peculiar effect. Imagine that I own a rental property in this area and that none of my current residents are students. Right now my building is not a student dwelling.

    But say that next year, my current renters move out and I advertise for new tenants. Some college students apply. Maybe I like renting to students, maybe I don't. However, the building next to mine is currently occupied by student. If I rent to students my property will become an illegal "student dwelling" so I am forced to turn them down regardless of my own preferences.

    In general, governments in the United States allow private businesses to turn down customers — to discriminate — for whatever reason. The courts and legislatures have slowly and at times reluctantly identified cases where it is in the public interest to forbid private businesses to discriminate based on certain criteria: age, sex, religion, race, and others — these are the "protected classes."

    We now have a situation where a government is *requiring* private businesses to discriminate against a specific (unprotected) class of people. This seems strange. Can anyone think of any other laws that have this type of effect?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

      the st paul planning commission website doesn't separate out the reports by actual issue, but you can find the report on the student housing ordinance in one of the 'packets' from that meeting.

      see here, scroll down to the 4/6 meeting, far right column, of the three parts of the packet.

  3. Karl Carter April 24, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    First, thank you for serving on this commission. It is comforting to know that there is someone representing students.

    The 150 foot rule seems silly. If student housing is such an issue why should it be spread out to affect the largest area possible?

    I am a student that currently lives in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. What I like about the layout of the neighborhood is that the student housing in relatively dense and surrounds the historic center of the area. The single family homes remain and students have a convient place to live.

    Students are going to live near universities and colleges, regardless of zoning or ordinances. The Como neighborhood is a good example of this. The emphasis should be on integrating students into the neighborhood rather than excluding them. Allowing denser development in key areas lessens the overall affect of students on the neighborhood by ensuring that most students live next to other students.

  4. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel April 24, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    Here's the background from just my time living in and around St. Thomas starting in 2003 …

    - 2003 to 2005: Neighbors complain too many students are in rental housing nearby campus

    - 2004/5: Ordinance enacts 4 max students per rental

    - 2005: To accommodate complaints, St. Thomas builds new student housing apartments on campus (over an open-surface parking lot)

    - 2007: Neighbors complain that too much parking is in the neighborhood.

    -2008: St. Thomas agree to build parking garage so students won't park on streets

    -2008: Neighbors complain that parking garage is ugly

    In the meanwhile, projects that added student housing by private developers and by the University were opposed by neighborhood groups. They even went to the extent of opposing a mixed-use building (over an ABANDONED gas station/service station) on a transit corridor because it added too much density …

    It appears neighbors want to have their cake and eat it too.

  5. Dave Reid April 24, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    This seems wrong to me.