House Bill 809 would further cut local control

Bill would let state make housing, zoning choices instead of local communities

By Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times

NSmithColLogoAlong with about 50 other people, I attended a hearing at West Chester Borough Hall on July 20 about House Bill 809 proposed to the PA House of Representatives.

On the positive side, we have a democratic process that allows citizens to find out what our legislators are doing and to hear differing views in a public forum.

On the negative side, the bill is a total disaster, as was made clear by speakers from West Chester, Lower Merion, Millersville, and State College.  (Four realtors and landlords spoke for the bill, however.)

The principle is very clear, in my view, just what Mike McGann enunciated in his July 20 opinion piece on public education:

“What I am advocating for is to allow folks in local districts like Unionville to make their own choices – through their elected school board – on what is right for their community and school district. We don’t have that now.”

Does the state know best how a local school district should educate its own students?  No.

Does the state know best how a municipality should zone property use for the benefit of its own residents?  No.

House Bill 809, currently before the Committee on Local Government, would radically cut into municipalities’ ability to regulate rental properties.  It would forbid any municipality from 1) limiting students to living in certain houses or areas and 2) limiting the number of unrelated individuals sharing a dwelling unit (with three exceptions that would be hard and time-consuming to detect and enforce).

To anyone living in West Chester, West Goshen, and East Bradford, the results would be clear: any current family home or rental could house students, and any large house could basically house two students and/or non-students in any room that could be called a bedroom.

Let’s get this clear: current student home limits are not legally “discriminatory.”  Not every zoning regulation that limits people’s actions discriminates against them.  Are developers discriminated against because local zoning says they can’t build a 100-foot building, or open a sports bar in a residential neighborhood, or tear down historic buildings whenever they want?  No, those are rational limits imposed by local ordinance to suit local conditions.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968, as amended, prohibits (with some refinements) denying or restricting sales and rentals on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and presence of children under 18.

US and PA laws define some other overall “protected classes,” but not involving student status or number of unrelated people living together.

Long ago, in another state, I had a neighbor who agreed to rent a property to a woman who was white, but when the woman returned with her black husband, the property was suddenly “unavailable.”  That was real racial discrimination and my neighbor was rightly fined. 

But of course, if you wanted to be able to rent your properties to a lot more people than currently allowed, you’d say that any limits that stood in your way were “discriminatory,” wouldn’t you?

Are all limits unfair to students and landlords?  No, because the community has the right to regulate use of property.  Following the example of some other municipalities, in 2001 West Chester passed its Student Homes ordinance, which grandfathered then-existing student rental units, numbering over 2,100, but forbade new student homes within a certain distance of an existing student home and certain other property uses.

That essentially meant no new student homes in the Borough.  But wouldn’t you think that 2,100+ would suffice in a town of under two square miles?

At the July 20 hearing, West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta’s presentation summed up some of the problems with the bill:

H.B. 809 Imposes a Disparate Impact on Communities Hosting Universities

H.B. 809 Negatively Impacts a Community’s Quality of Life

H.B. 809 De-Stabilizes Neighborhoods and Communities

H.B. 809 Negatively Impacts Community Safety

H.B. 809 Removes Local Zoning Control

H.B. 809 Degrades a Community’s Health and Welfare

H.B 809 Undoes Cooperative University and Community Efforts

She also showed that police calls (and by no means all for minor matters) were 18 times more frequent in a given area in the SE (high student occupancy) part of the Borough than in a similarly sized area in the SW.

As a West Chester University graduate herself who has many ties to the University, Mayor Comitta is certainly not anti-student.  But like anyone who lives near a university, she knows that individuals a few years before or after the age of 20 can be disruptive at times, and in large concentrations can be very disruptive.

One can be pro-community and pro-student at the same time.  In fact, I don’t think that allowing even more 20-year-olds to live on their own furthers their education.  Young folks often benefit more from a setting with structure and guidance, as in a residence hall, than exploring life in an apartment on South Walnut St.  And those who live in varied residential neighborhoods get an education from interacting with families, children, older people; that benefit disappears if all non-students clear out.

Certain misconceptions surface in any discussion of the current regulations.  Do West Chester’s rules forbid someone from renting a room in their own family home to a student?  Do they prevent a married couple from renting a non-student home if both are students? Do they forbid one student living with three non-students in a single unit?  No to all!

As far as I can tell, of the other municipalities where WCU is located, East Bradford has no limits on student homes but West Goshen limits them to extant student homes in areas zoned R-4, which are few and far-between.  And both municipalities, like West Chester, allow no more than four unrelated individuals in a rental unit (except for group homes and dormitories). Fine, that’s up to those municipalities and any municipality.

Paraphrasing Mike McGann’s statement at the beginning, I’d conclude (subject to state and federal anti-discrimination law):

“What I am advocating for is to allow folks in local municipalities to make their own choices – through their elected officials – on what is right for their community’s housing needs.”

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