Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New Zoning Efforts Against Student Renters

I've written about new developments in anti-student zoning regulations before, but the ingenuity of towns and cities seeking to use their regulatory powers to restrict students from living in university-adjacent residential neighborhoods seems to know no bounds. Layered on top of existing exclusionary zoning regulations that limit entire areas to single-family detached dwellings, these rules generally go beyond addressing form and use to limiting tenancy and occupancy in such a way that students are greatly limited, if not altogether excluded, from inhabiting the primary residential option that is available to them.

Students have always been easy targets for such regulation. As temporary residents, they are politically weak and fragmented, and unlike racial minorities and certain other groups, they do not enjoy heightened legal protections against housing discrimination. However, the same regulations that impact students frequently have adverse impacts on poor and minority populations as well: animus against students may therefore serve as cover for less legally and socially acceptable forms of discrimination (as the ACLU's amicus brief in the rental caps case below discusses at length).

These regulations have been around for decades, but recent years have seen unprecedented attempts to limit the expansion of student populations into residential neighborhoods (generally a result of the failure of single-family zoning, by itself, to staunch the inflow). Among the approaches used, past and present, include:
  • Occupancy Limits. The most common restriction involves amending statutory definitions of "family" in housing or zoning codes to ensure that single family homes are unavailable for use by roommate groups. Alan Durning, in a recent Sightline article, eviscerated the basis for such regulations, but nonetheless they have the approval of the Supreme Court (1974's Belle Terre v. Boraas, in which an anti-student occupancy limit was upheld 7-2). 
  • Direct Prohibitions. The only place I'm aware of that has adopted this type of overt discrimination is Philadelphia's Yorktown neighborhood, immediately adjacent to Temple University, which sponsored the creation of a special Yorktown Overlay in which students would be entirely prohibited from renting in single-family zones (with an exception for owner-occupant landlords). This prohibition against a named class of persons, reminiscent of the racial covenants and zoning laws of the first half of the 20th century, was handily upheld by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
  • Rental Caps. Until recent years, it had apparently never occurred to Americans that they might invoke municipal law to simply outlaw tenancy on a widespread basis, but that is precisely what several Minnesota towns have recently done to varying degrees, building off of earlier laws restricting short-term vacation rentals. The town of Winona, in particular, home to Winona State University, adopted a law limiting rental licenses to 30% of the houses on each block. Several homeowners, finding that the law greatly devalued their properties to the extent of rendering them effectively unsaleable, filed suit against the town in a case that is on appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals (after a district court returned an unfavorable ruling to the homeowners).
Resident complaints about the behavior of groups of student renters undoubtedly have a real basis, though it is easy to stereotype and over-generalize, and there must be better means of regulating behavior than setting blanket restrictions and prohibitions on an entire class of persons. Moreover, the very demographic pressure of students on neighborhoods of single-family homes may be exacerbated by an absence of multifamily housing (Winona, despite being a small city, does have a narrow band zoned for multifamily housing, but it is not adjacent to the hemmed-in university, which appears to have little room for building new dormitories).

The resort to rental caps, however, is a rather striking step  perhaps the terminal step  in the century-long evolution of American zoning practice, making explicit what was always implicit in the idealized conception of the single-family suburb. Beyond the context of town-gown relations, the notion of using legal means to limit rentals seems to be proliferating in response to the purchase of foreclosed single-family homes by large real estate investors who intend to rent them, as a recent New York Times article documents. However, the Winona law's practical effect of trapping owners in their homes, and the arbitrary manner in which residential land values were transferred to owners with rental licenses, seems to have been a step too far even for the pursuit of the bourgeois utopia. That the state court upheld the law should not come as a surprise, but it will be interesting to keep an eye on the proceedings in the appeals court, which is scheduled to hear oral argument on the case tomorrow, December 12.

Related reading: Home Sweet Home? The Efficacy of Rental Restrictions to Promote Neighborhood Stability.


  1. Interesting post -- and blog as well, I've recently discovered it and have been reading through it with great pleasure.

    I'm in strong agreement about the problematic nature of these developments for city life, but am a little amused that the way I articulate my problem with these laws is nearly diametrically opposite to the one laid out in this post. To me, these seem to be, foremost, egregious attacks on the already-battered freedoms of association and exchange in this country.

    1. Hi Rocinante -- thanks for reading, and I'm glad you've enjoyed the blog. I would agree with you that several of these types of laws do implicate associational rights as well as property rights, particularly in the case of occupancy limitations. The idea that a city has the power to defined a "family" unit at all, and using that definition as a tool of exclusion, seems obnoxious to the Constitution and basic civil rights in a number of ways.

  2. Nice timing on this piece for me. Austin's is in the process of reducing its occupancy limit from 6 to 4 in response to complaints about students.

  3. A very interesting reading.

    And It's good to see you back!

  4. So in Boston, something like a fourth of all residents are students, naturally this comes up all over the place.

    In 2008 the city council passed an ordinance against more than 4 students living in a dwelling. Rarely enforced, AFAIK. We've had cases of over a dozen, maybe twenty, people living in a single house. Usually found out after a fire.

    This year, a state court struck down a similar zoning ordinance in Worcester. So it looks like such laws are unconstitutional in MA, at least.

    1. Enforcement definitely is an issue -- the very difficulty of carrying out these statutes is, I believe, what led a neighborhood like Yorktown to simply ban students altogether. I'm glad to hear some MA courts have come down against these laws, since judges generally display an extraordinary degree of deference to city decisions on these matters, generally stating that the minority group that is targeted must "seek recourse through the ballot box," etc.

  5. Could this town-gown tension be attributed to the hypertrophic "eds and meds" bubble of recent decades? It's not surprising that this conflict often arises in urban university districts or in the small-town neighborhoods surrounding big state colleges, both of which have undergone tremendous growth in recent decades.

    More specifically, universities seem to have taken the tack that it's ok or even desirable to push their ever-bloating student populations out into surrounding neighborhoods, rather than accommodating them on campus. That is, where universities were once obligated to accommodate most of their students in their own dorms, they now seem to prefer directing those resources into Olympic-standard recreational facilities and redundant starchitectural trophies, and leaving it up to students to find their own housing.

    It is indeed easy to stereotype college neighborhoods, but in many cases I think residents' objections are (somewhat) reasonable. The police chief of Charleston, Reuben Greenberg, once commented to the effect of "Poverty doesn't cause crime [and other urban disorder]; the *concentration* of poverty does." I think a similar unbalance can occur in "student ghettos" too.

    I really don't know how much longer until "eds and meds" bubble bursts and renders this relatively recent unbalanced phenomenon moot, but in the short term I think both sides need to do their part: As suggested in the post, the neighborhoods should realize that densification would *ease* pressure on their smaller, older housing stock by redirecting students into larger apartments. But the universities need to step up too and start accommodating more of their students in their own dorms again, instead of just fobbing them off onto neighborhoods ill-prepared to deal with the influx.

    1. Oops, I should clarify: by "larger apartments" I meant apartment *buildings*, not the size of the individual units themselves. So in the case of Winona, upzoning the SFDH ring immediately around the campus might take pressure off SFDH further away from the university.*

      This would have the additional beneficial side effect of providing students with a decorous "eyes on the street" third place to socialize in, since the apartment buildings could accommodate ground-floor retail. One common complaint in old "cottage home" districts experiencing an influx of students is the preponderance of unruly behavior at large semipublic gatherings like house parties, but I'd argue that this is at least partially caused by such neighborhood's historic lack of third places: if students can't be social in a public setting with limits on acceptable behavior, they'll be social in a private setting with less natural restriction on unruly behavior. So IMO old "cottage home" districts represent infantilized urbanism, and they can consequently infantilize college students.

      *However, one can argue that this wouldn't provide immediate relief, as the new construction would be pricy (especially since codes and the demand for luxurious amenities spur developers to gold-plate their units). So initially students would probably continue to be attracted to the cheaper, older, smaller houses.

    2. Hi Marc -- great points. Another issue, following off your point about public places, is that most undergraduate students are under 21 (I'd guess anywhere from 50-75%), which makes it difficult to socialize in third places that do exist. The drinking age laws therefore strongly encourage students to find accommodations where they can drink privately without undue interference from school authorities or law enforcement. At my own college, fraternities served that function, essentially substituting for bars and taverns that otherwise would have catered to the 18-20 crowd. If a school has no such places, then it should be no surprise that rented homes end up hosting much of that social activity. Even if a college provided sufficient housing for students, many would still be attracted by this aspect of private housing (not to mention the fact that even the lowest-quality private housing tends to be more private and more luxurious than the typical dormitory -- you aren't require to sleep two to a room! -- and this has implications for the necessary luxuriousness of private multifamily housing marketed to student renters).

      As for the multifamily idea, this definitely can work if it is properly implemented -- Nashville's Vanderbilt did just that adjacent to its campus, working with the city (at some point) to upzone the area adjacent to 21st Ave. S., where there are now several apartment buildings that cater to upperclassmen and especially graduate students (who are particularly averse to dormitory conditions, having often lived in private housing before going back to school). Short of requiring students to live on-campus, this seems to me to be the best option for moderating a mass migration of students into SFDR neighborhoods.

    3. Regarding drinking age laws: absolutely, and I hope the relaxation of these laws will follow the relaxation of marijuana laws - and eventually I'd like to see all drug/liquor/smoking laws discarded completely (except, of course, for laws punishing drunk/drug-influenced driving).

      If it's true that the driving culture among young people is at a low ebb*, then this may actually be a good time to try easing drinking laws to allow young people to familiarize themselves with alcohol over a longer period before college, so that they're not compelled to wildly indulge as soon as the parents leave them alone for the first time. Perhaps then (1) the "town gown" friction would ease somewhat, and (2) maintaining or strengthening drunk driving laws in contrast to easing drinking age laws would push the debate over improving public transit and providing walking-friendly neighborhoods further into the public spotlight.

      *Drinking age laws were purportedly enacted to curb drunk driving, but isn't this essentially a cure irrelevant to the disease? Last I checked it was illegal for anyone to drive drunk regardless of age!

      It'd be interesting to see if complaints over drunken students were as common in college-adjacent neighborhoods back when the drinking age was 18 in some states. Did more young people "get it out of their system" before college, or was the problem just as prevalent? Of course, the "eds and meds" bubble wasn't fully inflated yet, so there was probably less student pressure (and widespread unruliness) in college-adjacent neighborhoods in general. 500 students in a 10,000-pop neighborhood is one thing; 8,000 students in the same neighborhood is another.

    4. About the bubble, I'll bet that's right (I'll ask some members of a prior generation, i.e. my parents, about their experiences). The US has a particular habit of locating liberal arts colleges in small, often rural towns with parochial outlooks, and within SFDR neighborhoods within these towns. This does not seem to be the case in most other countries, where universities are by nature part of the intellectual and cultural life of cities, and would be seen as out of place in a town like Winona (a glance through a list of German universities shows virtually none in cities of less than 100,000), much less hamlets like Williamstown, MA, or Gambier, OH. When enrollments grew rapidly during the bubble, this set off town-gown clashes that I suspect would have occurred regardless of the drinking age, though the age raise to 21 probably exacerbated the tensions.

      I think it's also worth mentioning that when a university is located in a small, rural town with few cultural amenities, binge drinking becomes by default a popular recreational activity. My strong sense on visiting friends at urban campuses was that the fraternity culture, and drinking culture overall, was much weaker at these schools (and this is corroborated somewhat with some quick Google research).

      That said, many SFDR neighborhoods in larger cities clearly have similar reactions and responses to college expansion (I have one as an example, and Chris Bradford frequently writes about the situation in Austin), and the lack of room for expansion on constrained campuses may intensify these conflicts, even if the students are better behaved.

    5. Marc -- one other quick point: it also occurs to me that raising the drinking age was tied to highway funds, although the very expansion of highways reinforced an autocentric growth pattern which practically required driving to drink at restaurants and bars (and therefore has presumably increased the incidence of drinking and driving). Yet the drinking age laws are targeted at the very adult group that has, by far, the lowest rate of car ownership ( and which, on colleges campuses, is frequently entirely car-free.

  6. Hope it's not too late to follow up...

    Your thoughts on the traditional American practice of putting universities in small towns were very interesting, and this is something I've been wondering too. I wish I remembered the title, but there was a book which argued that since the US was essentially still being settled at the same time our cultural institutions were being established, there was a sort of elite/moralist consensus to put prominent institutions in "rough and tumble" areas in an effort to civilize and domesticate them. In some states this was manifested in putting the state capitals in out-of-the-way areas, for example (another reason was to put politicians away from the corrupting hands of business in the established cities, no doubt a hangover from Jefferson's mindset). In the 20th century some other "young frontier" nations tried to do the same - Canberra, Brasilia, New Delhi, Abuja, etc.

    But I don't think small college towns with town-gown frictions are necessarily "parochial" - it's almost a cliche that they're often the most "liberal" dots in seas of conservatism. But I suppose when it comes to upzoning SFDH neighborhoods that label applies - mostly because residents want to maintain a neighborhood "character" - the sparsely-populated cottage home district - that is no longer consistent with the needs of a different demographic influx.

    Great points on binge drinking, but I too can only confirm this anecdotally. There are also plenty of examples to the contrary, like Federal Hill and Fells Point in Baltimore that seem to attract a disproportionate amount of sloppy drinkers to the point that residents want to curtail the opening of any more drinking establishments.

    1. It's never too late to follow up! Interesting points about college locations. On second though, though, it seems to me that the larger state-run colleges (those most analogous to the public universities in countries like France or Germany) tend to be in large, or at least larger cities, and less often in small towns (with some exceptions, like the University of Mississippi). It is the private, liberal arts places that seem to be heavily, maybe overwhelmingly, weighted toward the small-town or even rural setting. As to small town politics, I was referring to the outlook of residents toward growth and expansion -- these small towns are often hypersensitive about change, whereas colleges (being non-democratic communities) do not suffer from internal NIMBY resistance to densification and new construction.

      On a lighter note, your comments about the location of colleges brings to mind this old, tongue-in-cheek and now politically incorrect poem (drinking song?) about my alma mater, which manages to combine that theme with the prominence of binge drinking in rural settings (Eleazar Wheelock being the actual founder of the college, who did in fact try to educate/Christianize the local Native American population):

      "Oh, Eleazar Wheelock was a very pious man;
      He went into the wilderness to teach the Indian,
      With a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a drum,
      And five hundred gallons of New England rum.
      Fill the bowl up! Fill the bowl up!
      Drink to Eleazar and his primitive Alcazar,
      Where he mixed drinks for the heathen in the goodness of his soul.

      The big chief that met him was the sachem of the Wah-hoo-wahs;
      If he was not a big chief, there was never one you saw who was;
      He had tobacco by the cord, ten squaws, and more to come,
      But he never yet had tasted of New England rum.
      Fill the bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

      Eleazar and the big chief harangued and gesticulated;
      They founded Dartmouth College, and the big chief matriculated.
      Eleazar was the faculty, and the whole curriculum
      Was five hundred gallons of New England rum.
      Fill the Bowl up! Fill the bowl up!"

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  11. Am I to take it, that if I was offered a full scholarship to this "commode", as you so affectionately call it, you would recommend that I consider the other 19 schools I applied to (most of which are only offering $60,000 in scholarships)?

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