Town and gown are that place where college students and the communities they live in collide. A new bill in the General Assembly is giving the two sides a chance to butt heads over the question of just how many students can live in an off-campus house.
House Bill 809 was introduced by state Rep. Susan Helm in February. Her proposal would short-circuit municipal attempts to limit a house from being occupied by students or limiting the number of “unrelated individuals living together.”
“It is entirely reasonable for a municipality to enact and enforce ordinances to regulate such things as parking, noise levels, health and safety concerns or violations. But it is neither fair nor reasonable to approach these issues by singling out students ... based on an assumption that they are, or will be, problem citizens and undesirable neighbors,” Helm, R-Dauphin, wrote in her co-sponsorship memoranda.
On Monday, the House Local Government Committee held a hearing on the bill in West Chester. Among those testifying was State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine.
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Fountaine is a past president of the International Town Gown Association. Town and gown issues are nothing new when you run the municipality whose next-door neighbor is the largest university in Pennsylvania.
“State College has considerable experience with student housing and related quality-of-life issues,” he told the committee.
The borough also has experience with restricting student housing.
According to Fountaine’s testimony, for almost 40 years, the municipality has been trying to combat the out-migration of families and professionals from State College’s residential areas with a series of planning moves that have limited the growth of student housing.
In 1979, a zoning regulation limited a single-family home to just three unrelated people. In 1997, a “student home” was defined and a regulation passed specifying how close student homes could be to each other.
In 2011, another regulation increased that distance “to prevent the further expansion of student homes into lower impacted neighborhoods that have not seen an increase in new student rentals.”
The last regulation, passed this year, was an annual licensing requirement that Fountaine said the borough is now implementing.
All of these were coupled with attempts to increase the number of families and professionals in the borough.
In 2014, the State College Redevelopment Authority began a program to buy licensed student homes and turn them back into single-family, owner-occupied residences with deed restrictions that would prevent them from ever becoming home to Penn State students who don’t want to stay in the dorms or in one of the mushrooming complexes of student apartments.
“This program advances State College’s strategic plan goals to increase owner-occupied housing, to increase diversity in the neighborhoods near campus, and to stabilize and reverse the negative trends that have occurred simultaneously with the increase of student housing in the neighborhoods at the edge of campus,” Fountaine testified, calling the ability to make such limits “important tools ... to help us balance the impact of studentification of our communities.”
State College has a population of 42,000, compared with the university’s 46,000 students. According to Penn State’s Office of Off-Campus Living, there is a mix of undergraduate, graduate, international and returning adult students who attend the University Park campus and do not live in dorms.
Fountaine’s testimony alleged that 60 percent of all borough crime involves students, with 48 percent happening in residential areas that are mostly student-occupied.
“If we look at only residential neighborhoods and remove downtown State College, 76 percent of all crime in State College occurred in these neighborhoods,” he testified.
Penn State had no comment on the bill. The University Park Undergraduate Association could not be reached for comment.
“I want to be very clear on one point,” Fountaine testified. “Penn State University and the students that attend Penn State are very important to the State College community.”