State College

Graduate housing debate continues in State College

Doctoral students may see more renting options in the borough following discussions Monday about the definition of “students.”

The issue surrounds whether or not doctoral students, and possibly graduate students in general by extension, should be considered students when it comes to rentals in the borough. Some Penn State graduate students, and members of the community, feel there is a distinct separation between graduates and undergraduates that should be taken into consideration.

The issue arose in November, when former Councilwoman Sarah Klinetob brought a multipoint argument before the council that people enrolled in part- or full-time doctoral programs be exempt from borough student home zoning regulations.

“Under the current zoning, all part- and full-time undergraduate and graduate students are defined as students in the borough and are subject to zoning regulations in R-1, R-2 and R-3 residential zoning districts,” she said in November. Within these districts, students are prohibited from renting units that are not covered by a student home license, and no more than three unrelated students may live in one unit.

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine also explained that student rental units could not be within a certain distance to each other in these districts.

The borough Planning Commission reviewed the issue for several months, coming to the conclusion that the council not amend the student home definition. A student home is defined as any living arrangement within a one-family dwelling, one-family dwelling with an apartment, or two-family dwelling by people who are unrelated by blood, marriage or legal adoption and are attending undergraduate or graduate programs offered by colleges or universities or are on semester or summer break from studies at colleges or universities, or any combination of such people.

Staff recommended council vote to concur with the Planning Commission’s recommendation to take no action at this time, saying instead that the issue could be addressed as part of a comprehensive update to the zoning code — an update that could take three to five years.

Planning Director Ed LeClear clarified that staff was not advocating avoiding future amendments, but said it was “clear after four-and-a-half hours of debate that the issue is very complex.” As a complex issue, it would be more appropriate to discuss in a comprehensive way.

Council President Tom Daubert said the issue was complicated by the definition of a student, which is “anyone who takes a course to earn a degree.” Daubert said when he was working as a full-time faculty member while taking one course per term, he wouldn’t have been able to get the apartment he wanted under today’s rules.

The full-time people who just happen to be part-time doctoral candidates are put in the same category, that’s ridiculous.

Council President Tom Daubert

“The full-time people who just happen to be part-time doctoral candidates are put in the same category, that’s ridiculous,” he said, adding he wouldn’t be voting to accept the recommendation.

Penn State Graduate and Professional Student Association President Kevin Horne addressed the council, saying he saw no reason to wait three to five years to do the right thing for graduate students. He passed along comments by four-year graduate student Alison Franklin, who said she was forced to seek housing near Bellefonte for herself and her family.

“By changing how graduate students are zoned,” Horne read, “the borough would provide greater access to housing close to campus for all graduate students who need it.”

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer argued that changing the definition of who is a student would likely not make new housing available as unreasonable rent seemed to be driving people from the borough rather than a lack of housing.

Councilman David Brown said he spoke with several real estate agents who told him if more housing were opened up to graduate students, the result would be to increase the cost of rent in the areas the students were looking for.

“For the family you mentioned,” he told Horne, “this probably would be more cost prohibitive because of the change.”

Third-year graduate student Morteza Karimzadeh told council he missed the dignity he had as a professional before becoming a graduate student, saying to target graduate students under the pretext of keeping housing affordable was nothing short of discrimination.

Resident Eric Boeldt, who said he rents three apartments to graduate students, said if the definition changed, he could go out and purchase a house to rent to two graduate students with a nice profit, taking one more house out of the residential ranks.

This will increase the number of rentals, not the number of renters.

Resident Eric Boeldt

“This will increase the number of rentals, not the number of renters,” he said. “It will increase the rental population, not the units, which will have a negative effect on the land trust and first-time homebuyers.”

University Park Undergraduate Association representative Shawn Bengali said the UPUA supported the graduate association, saying graduate and undergraduate lifestyles “couldn’t be more different.”

I’m concerned that the proposal could be pushed under the rug if it came up during reform discussions.

University Park Undergraduate Association representative Shawn Bengali

“I don’t see why there has to be a comprehensive zoning reform to separate these students,” he said. “I’m concerned that the proposal could be pushed under the rug if it came up during reform discussions. The issue needs to be addressed now.”

Councilman Evan Myers announced he would be declining the recommendation, saying discriminatory situations can’t wait and he had changed his mind after listening to the evening’s speakers.

The motion to accept the recommendation was unanimously voted down by the council. According to Fountaine, a work session will be scheduled within the next 45 to 60 days to further address the issue.

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews