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Can St. Paul’s student housing restriction spur student involvement in local government?

Jonathan Morris

This summer, the St. Paul City Council implemented a new ordinance in order to limit the growth of off-campus student housing. The new measure requires that new student rentals be at least 150 feet from existing student rentals. The affected area is located near St. Thomas University, and the ordinance was passed over objections from St. Thomas. Developments like this serve as practical lessons on the value of student involvement in local government.

The ordinance is intended to alleviate problems of overcrowding, excessive vehicular traffic, demand for available parking, noise and nuisance complaints from residents in the affected neighborhoods. Had the ordinance not passed in St. Paul, the list brings to mind the same conditions found in the Dinkytown, Marcy-Holmes and SoutheastComo neighborhoods near the University of Minnesota.

The consequences of such an ordinance would be severe — when many students walk, area close to a campus is valued at a premium. Restricting the density of student rentals of existing property would make continued expansion of student housing difficult and serve to drive up prices students pay — in an area where the rental density is obscenely high, despite continued development of high density student housing by developers like Doran. When student loans are available to help pay for the cost of housing while in school — about how much money is available in student loans is indexed to the cost of living — the normal rules of supply and demand each student learns in class fails to apply.

The ordinance affects St. Thomas, St. Catherine and Macalester colleges. St. Thomas has decided that it is going to accept the new ordinance in St. Paul and that they will move on. With just 6,000 undergraduates, and only slightly more than half living off campus, the effect is small compared to if such a policy were adopted near the University of Minnesota and its nearly 65,000 students.

The University maintains an active relationship between the administration and the local neighborhoods through the University District Alliance, which serves as a forum for representatives from the University, the Minnesota Student Association, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Augsburg College and the various neighborhoods. Such groups help address concerns of respective groups and make sure that a unified vision for the area can be agreed upon to drive policy-making that is carried out across a wide range of institutions. In turn, the interests of the University are strongly represented — an essential component of developments such as football returning to campus at TCF Bank Stadium.

Ensuring the availability of student housing at reasonable rates is a significant concern about the total cost of higher education, which has outpaced inflation and saddled students graduating today with massive debt. However, if St. Thomas has chosen not to fight the restriction, can students at the University of Minnesota trust the administration to take their interests into account? To ensure that city zoning laws are not part of the problem, students must not abdicate an active role in engaging neighborhood associations and the city council.

The most alarming side of this issue is how few students are involved in these decisions, or  are even aware they are being made. The situation may indicate disconnects between the local governments that decide zoning restrictions and residents.