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 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 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?