St. Paul City Council Limits Conversion of Owner-occupied Housing to Undergraduate Student Rental Housing Around St. Thomas

The St. Paul City Council has approved an ordinance that will establish a district around the St. Thomas campus to limit the further conversion of owner-occupied housing to undergraduate student rental housing.

The council approved the ordinance, which will take effect in early August, last Wednesday on a 5-2 vote after 20 minutes of discussion. The council held a public hearing on the issue June 20 and also received dozens of letters and emails.

The ordinance does not affect existing student rental housing in single-family homes or duplexes but applies a 150-foot buffer between existing housing and attempts to convert owner-occupied housing to student rental dwellings.

Ordinance district boundaries will be Interstate 94 on the north, Snelling Avenue (south to Summit Avenue) and Fairview Avenue (south to St. Clair Avenue) on the east, St. Clair on the south and Mississippi River Boulevard on the west (excluding the Desnoyer Park neighborhood).

Click on the map for a larger view of the district.

St. Thomas opposed the ordinance because it singled out the university, said Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations. An Undergraduate Student Government resolution opposing the ordinance said it unfairly targeted students.

“The issue of what to do about student rental housing should be dealt with on a citywide level – not just at St. Thomas,” Hennes told the council at the public hearing. “If a density ordinance is considered good public policy, then it should be applied to neighborhoods surrounding all colleges.”

The council, however, chose to focus only on the St. Thomas neighborhood. Council member Russ Stark represents the Fourth Ward, including the university, and he defended the ordinance’s boundaries. He said 60 percent of student rental properties in St. Paul are concentrated around St. Thomas and that most complaints about student housing come from this neighborhood.

The ordinance is not “perfect or a panacea,” Stark said, but will serve as another “tool” to deal with the escalating conversion of properties to student rental status. He said he doesn’t believe the ordinance will affect students’ ability to find rental housing close to campus because existing rental houses and duplexes will retain that status as long as their owners register them.

Council member Chris Tolbert, who represents the Third Ward south of campus, voted against the ordinance. He said the city’s colleges and students are “great assets” and that he was concerned the message would be perceived that students are not welcome in the neighborhood. He also questioned how easy it will be for the city to enforce the ordinance and whether it will lead to more student rental properties outside the district, particularly south of St. Clair and east of Snelling.

Stark and three neighborhood organizations that favored the ordinance have insisted it is not an “anti-student” initiative but only an effort to maintain an appropriate balance of owner-occupied and student rental housing.

The city will contact existing rental property owners who possess a fire certificate of occupancy and require that they submit an application to register the property as a student dwelling with 120 days. Sixty days after the registration process concludes, additional properties may be registered as student dwellings as long as they are not within 150 feet of registered student dwellings.

The ordinance defines a student dwelling as a single-family house occupied by three or four undergraduate students or a duplex occupied by up to eight students. Larger buildings, such as triplexes and apartment buildings, are not affected, nor are housing owned by students and duplexes where the owner lives in one half and rents to students in the other half.

The ordinance will replace a one-year moratorium approved last August by the council on the conversion of owner-occupied houses to student rental properties. St. Thomas did not oppose the moratorium because it would have had no impact on students’ ability to find housing for the 2011-12 school year.