Bill would end towns’ rights to regulate off-campus student housing

This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website and the Main Line Media News‘ website.
State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta and Millersville Mayor Richard Moriarty give testimonies in front of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Local Government Committee regarding House Bill 809 on Monday. (Candice Monhollan)

State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta and Millersville Mayor Richard Moriarty give testimonies in front of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Local Government Committee regarding House Bill 809 on Monday. (Candice Monhollan)

WEST CHESTER — The Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Local Government Committee gathered in West Chester’s municipal building to hear divergent opinions about House Bill 809 on Monday morning.

The bill, if passed, will end all municipal ordinances that prohibit the occupation of a dwelling based on an individual’s matriculation status or the number of unrelated individuals sharing a dwelling.

“Our goal is to end the possibility of there being any discrimination against students when they are looking for a place to live while attending classes in college communities across the Commonwealth,” said state Rep. Sue Helm, who is the prime sponsor of the bill. “Students should not be discriminated against simply because they are students. Many of them are veterans or married and are good neighbors that do not cause problems.”

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Several officials from towns that have universities attended the meeting to voice opposition to the bill, however, including several from West Chester who said the areas of the borough where students live off-campus are much more crime-prone than those where single families live.

“In the most dense student neighborhoods, I would certainly suggest that the density of student rentals and the amount of crimes that occur are directly correlated,” West Chester Councilman Jordan Norley said.

With postsecondary education institutions such as West Chester University, Temple, Penn State and Robert Morris, Pennsylvania is home to over 200 colleges and universities.

Currently, municipalities are allowed to enact ordinances that can restrict students from moving into residences off campus.

“Municipalities typically control student housing through zoning ordinances,” Helm said. “We believe it is entirely within reason for them to enact and enforce rules to regulate such things as parking, noise levels, health and safety concerns or code violations.

“However, we also believe it is unfair and unreasonable to attempt to regulate these issues by singling out students or unrelated persons living together based on the incorrect assumption made by some municipalities that they will be problem citizens and undesirable neighbors who will have a negative impact on the community and its quality of life.”

Representatives from the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association, or PROA, were in attendance at the public hearing and each cited reasons why they were in support of the bill.

Rita Dallago, executive director of the PROA, said group members understood municipal officials are under pressure to handle citizen complaints, but said it could also be considered illegal to enact ordinances directed at limiting student housing.

“Our concern is the ordinances that discriminate against and punish rental housing providers that rent units to students,” she said. “Their objective seems to be to reduce the number of students living in their community or to segregate them to specific areas in the community. In the real estate world, this is known as ‘red-lining,’ an illegal action.

“Telling people where they may or may not live, based on anything other than their ability to afford the rent, should not be a function of the rental housing provider or the municipal officials,” Dallago said. “Tenants should not be treated as second-class citizens, for they are a vital part of our economic structure.”

Vince Dunsworth, a landlord in Edinboro, agreed.

“Why should this kind of discrimination be allowed against any non-criminal members of our society?” he asked. “Keep in mind that many of these students have served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this kind of discrimination what they fought for?”

State Rep. James Santora, who represents part of Delaware County, was perturbed by some of the arguments in favor of the bill.

“It really bothers me when people use distinguished veterans’ service to get their point across on something that has nothing to do with a veteran’s service,” he said as the audience applauded.

Dunsworth also felt that the ordinances stereotype college students.

“Crime is a big issue?” he asked. “Sure, a few students get into trouble, as do a certain number of non-students. So do we discriminate against all students because of a few bad actors?”

West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta compared the single-family dwelling area west of the university to the student-rental neighborhood east of the university.

From January through June of this year, police received 61 calls to the single-family area while the student-rental area had a staggering 1,111.

Forty-seven percent of the calls regarded underage drinking, trespassing, DUIs, weapons violations and noise. But 28 percent dealt with burglary, assaults, thefts, narcotic violations and rape.

West Chester’s zoning ordinances don’t ban off-campus housing, but they do have restrictions to keep student density levels down.

Not only would the bill eliminate the ability to manage the density, Comitta said, but it would also severely damage relations with the university.

“House Bill 809 undoes cooperative university and community efforts,” Comitta said. “We have been working so diligently and so successfully for over decades to bring our students, our university staff and our borough residents, business owners, elected officials, law enforcement officials and rental property owners together to find ways to improve the quality of life in our borough.”

Scott Zelov, a commissioner from Lower Merion Township, also discussed the disturbances caused by college students living off campus.

“Off-campus student-occupied homes are, and have been, a significant problem in our community,” he said. “The student-occupied homes completely changed communities. The neighborhoods went from quiet and family-occupied to neighborhoods primarily occupied by college students. These off-campus student homes essentially became unsupervised dormitories with no college oversight on student behavior.”

Zelov also brought up how upset the Lower Merion commissioners were that the state felt it knew better then the local government.

“Our Board of Commissioners also objected to any state level legislation that preempts a local municipality’s ability to regulate land use,” he said. “The local elected officials are in the best position to understand the impact of land use on their community and they understand the regulations that best meet community needs. This level of local land use regulation cannot be applied with a broad brush at a state level.”

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