St. Paul looks at restricting housing near St. Thomas

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2011 - 10:09 PM

As tension between student-renters and homeowners near the university climbs, the City Council on Wednesday is expected to pass a year moratorium on home conversions.

Just in time for the fall migration of students to St. Thomas University in St. Paul, the City Council has drafted a proposal to curb the conversion of owner-occupied homes near the Summit Avenue campus into off-campus housing for multiple students.

The proposal, expected to pass at Wednesday's council meeting, brings to the surface the percolating tension between transient student-renters and the homeowners in the surrounding historic neighborhoods near the Mississippi River.

"The goal is not to eliminate student rentals, it is to hopefully create a balance in some parts reaching a tipping point," said Russ Stark, a council member and the proposal's sponsor.

As soon as Stark, a freshman council member, took office in January 2008, he said he started hearing concerns from homeowners in the area. They cited excessive traffic and parking demands because of students, as well as disruptive behavior in the upscale areas around St. Thomas, the state's largest non-public university.

Stark is dancing onto dicey terrain. His predecessor on the council, Jay Benanav, tried unsuccessfully to pass zoning restrictions in 2003 to ease tensions between residents and students. Since 1999, neighbors have chafed at the university's demolitions and expansions. Some filed lawsuits. Others planted lawn signs denouncing "campus sprawl."

The latest moratorium would prohibit conversion of one-family homes into two- or three-family homes and two-family homes into three-family homes. The resolution also would bar one-, two- and three-family homes that are owner-occupied from being exclusively occupied by students unless a student owns the home.

For now, St. Thomas won't oppose the moratorium, said Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations. The timing of the proposal won't affect students this fall because most signed leases and made housing arrangements in the spring, he said.

But Hennes said, "We would oppose a flat-out longer-term moratorium because it would affect student housing."

Looking for long-term solution

Nearly 6,000 undergraduate students enroll at St. Thomas. Of those, 44 percent live on campus. Of those living off-campus, roughly 1,600 live in housing surrounding the school, according to Hennes and Stark.

Stark said one long-term option: Cap the number of student rentals on a given block. An area of concern is Lincoln Avenue that runs parallel to St. Thomas and is just south of Grand Avenue. Stark said he knows of a stretch of Lincoln that went from five student homes to 19 within a decade.

What often happens is that parents buy a house for their child, then rent out extra rooms to help with the mortgage. Or sometimes a homeowner moves and sublets the home to students. Stark's proposed ordinance said the arrangement turns once-permanent residences into short-term rentals that don't get the same care as owner-occupied houses.

Both sides say they want to work in concert and neither speaks ill of the other. "My primary goal is to strengthen the livelihood of the university and the livability of the neighborhood," Hennes said, adding that the school's leafy surroundings enhance its appeal to students and their parents.

Stark said, "The university is a partner in trying to deal with these issues and they recognize this is a problem."

If the proposal passes, Stark said the aim will be for the Planning Commission to complete a study quickly, possibly as early as January or February. Then the council could consider possible zoning changes, he said. In any scenario, the moratorium would expire in a year.

Council President Kathy Lantry said she is likely to support the proposal because of the specific time frame and her concerns that "home values are starting to be affected. Certainly, people's quality of life has been affected for a long time."

Hennes disputed that assertion, saying a university study found that homes in neighborhoods surrounding St. Thomas held their values more than any other part of the city.

Council Member Pat Harris, who represents a small portion of the area targeted for moratorium, also said he supports the proposal. Harris, however, said he would consider expanding the boundaries. "I don't want it to have the effect of squeezing the problem into other neighborhoods," Harris said.

Mayor Chris Coleman declined to comment on the proposal.

Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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