ST. PAUL NOTES | Student housing moratorium?

UPDATED 10/27/2011 — Drunken students with loud parties. Stick-in-the-mud old folks who want to have lights out at 10 p.m. Merriam Park and Mac-Groveland have seen the town versus gown conflict play out year after year. This year’s battleground is in City Hall, where a moratorium on the conversion of single-family homes to student housing is under consideration.

Full disclosure: I live next door to a student rental house, and we see new student neighbors every year. One year they were terrible, fitting all the stereotypes. The rest of the time, they have ranged from good enough to great neighbors. Of course, that house would not be affected by a moratorium, because it has been multi-person rental housing for years. Moreover, we live in Desnoyer Park, which is outside the boundaries of the moratorium area.

In August, the city council passed a temporary moratorium on conversion of owner-occupied homes in the area (see map) to rental properties. (It’s a little more complicated than that, so if you want the exact wording, see the sidebar.) The moratorium will expire at the end of a year, at the latest. While it’s in place, city staff are studying whether any permanent zoning changes should be made and, if so, what they might look like.

From temporary moratorium ordinance

1. the conversion of any one-family home into a two- or three-family home, or conversion of a two-family home into a three-family home. 2. the conversion of any one-family, two-family or three family home presently owner occupied, into a home exclusively occupied by students, except in the case of an existing two- or three-family home where the owner (s) named in the records of the Ramsey County Department of Property Taxation actually resides in one of the dwelling units.
Further, during the effective dates of this interim ordinance and only within the limits of the interim ordinance study area, the legal occupancy of a residential dwelling unit in any R1-RM2 zoning district shall be limited to one (1) or two (2) persons or parents, along with their direct lineal descendants and adopted or legally cared for children, together with not more than one (1) person not so related.

What’s the issue?

Two different sets of issues drive the discussion. First, there’s the issue of rental housing — any rental housing — and concerns about a “tipping point.” Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, applies here. As Wikipedia explains, “Gladwell defines a tipping point as ‘the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.’The book seeks to explain and describe the ‘mysterious’ sociological changes that mark everyday life.” In the housing discussion, “tipping point” means that when there are too few owners and too many renters living in a neighborhood, bad things happen.

Second, there’s the issue of students in rental housing, and homeowners who think that students are bad neighbors. TommieMedia described it vividly in September:

Junior Leah Olson said neighbors should just accept where they live, which is in a college neighborhood.

“College students drink. People throw up. They litter, and that’s just what they do. That’s what you’re signing up for when you live next to campus,” Olson said. “Sometimes I’m thinking, well this could be a family’s house. But at the same time I’m also thinking, you chose to live here.”

(For the record, that’s definitely not the position of the university. “We tell people to respect privacy, tone it down, keep the noise down, don’t walk through people’s yards, don’t urinate in the bushes, respect people’s property,” explained Doug Hennes, Vice President for University and Government Relations at St. Thomas.)

Three positions

Now, you may love St. Thomas or hate it, but Doug Hennes did a great job of laying out some of the issues and positions on the moratorium.

First, he described three different positions on the issue:

  • People who are concerned the neighborhood is at a tipping point in terms of too many rentals vs. owner-occupied.
  • People who, irrespective of the “tipping point” issue, are just tired of students living in the neighborhood, bringing with them noise issues, and parking and traffic issues.
  • People, especially property owners and landlords, who don’t like the idea of any restrictions on what they can do with their property and say a density ordinance would not be market-friendly, and would penalize people who want to buy or sell property.

What kind of restriction?

While it’s unlikely that any zoning restriction applying specifically to students would be practical (or constitutional), there are zoning restrictions that could have the effect of restricting student rentals by restricting all rentals.

Regulating density means capping the percentage of housing that can be licensed for rental. The Winona Post describes that city’s regulation (now under court challenge), as a “30 percent rental cap, a rule that prevents homeowners from getting a rental license when more than 30 percent of the dwellings on the block already have them.”

Regulating distance is another possible approach. That would mean, for instance, prohibiting grants of new rental license to houses within a certain distance (e.g., 100 feet) of another rental property.

St. Paul already has an unrelated adult rule, that restricts occupancy of a single-family dwelling by more than four unrelated people (or a related family plus two unrelated people.)

Students and renters

Hennes said that the University of St. Thomas keeps track of how many students are living on-campus, off-campus and in the neighborhood. According to their records, between 1500 and 1700 students live in apartments, duplexes, and single family homes in the neighborhood bounded by I-94 and St. Clair, Snelling and the Mississippi. He said that number has remained constant since 1991. While enrollment has increased, the university has also added about 1,000 on-campus beds, which increases the percentage of undergrads living on-campus from about 33 percent in 1997 to about 44 percent today. “The bottom line is that we have absorbed the undergraduate population growth,” said Hennes.

Does that mean the neighborhoods around St. Thomas have remained unchanged? Not exactly.

Hennes described a study done by a professor in the geography department and a student during the past year. They looked at conversion of owner-occupied housing to rental housing in three areas: five parcels near St. Thomas where there’s a heavy concentration of student rental housing, the larger area (I-94 to St. Clair, Snelling to the river), and the city as a whole.

From 1990-2002, Hennes said, just about as many homes went from non-homestead (rental) to homestead (owner-occupied) housing as in the opposite (homestead to non-homestead) direction. From 2002 to 2009, numbers swung dramatically to the non-homestead side.

  • In the small area (five parcels): 10 went from non-homestead to homestead, and 129 went from homestead to non-homestead — about a 13:1 ratio.
  • In the larger area: 51 went from non-homestead to homestead, and 663 went from homestead to non-homestead — about a 13:1 ratio.
  • In the entire city: 1,264 went from non-homestead to homestead, and 11,506 went from homestead to non-homestead — about a 9:1 ratio.

Bottom line: there is a huge swing to non-homestead status, which usually means rental housing, but it’s not really tied to students. The reason behind such a massive change may lie in the economy – not the academy – and that more adults are renting. It also should be noted that non-homestead status may include homes standing vacant or rented out by lenders after foreclosure.

Another viewpoint

That’s not a universally shared conclusion. Scott Banas, a community resident and member and former chair of the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee, argues that the numbers can be interpreted differently. He points out that the increase in conversion to rental properties in our neighborhood around St. Thomas is higher than the increase in the city as a whole.

First of all, the numbers are accurate in a general sense, but it’s important to keep in mind that the increase in conversion to rental properties in our neighborhood around St. Thomas outstrips the city numbers by about 30 percent. That’s roughly in a half mile around St. Thomas, the conversions were about 30 percent higher than in the rest of the city.

It’s clear to us that in spite of larger economic forces that have resulted in conversion from homestead to non-homestead properties citywide, the area around the University of St. Thomas has a much higher rate than city in general.

Number two, if you add to that the rate of foreclosures in area around St. Thomas is markedly lower than in the city in general, so the conversion of homestead to non homestead properties around the University of St. Thomas is less likely due to foreclosure than it is to conversion [from single-family homeowner to rental] by students.

Bannes said that WSNAC is in favor of some kind of limitation on rental properties, but is waiting to hear the recommendation of the Department of Planning and Economic Development about specific approaches.

What’s next?

City staff is studying the issue, and will eventually make a recommendation to a committee of the planning commission. If the committee makes a recommendation to the planning commission, they will hold a public hearing, consider the recommendation and vote. If the planning commission sends a recommendation on to the city council, they will also hold a public hearing and then make a decision.

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