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OS Investigates: Brothel Law & Sorority Houses

normal_08welcomeweek03When I first visited Penn State in my junior year of high school I took one of Penn State’s signature campus tours.  While on the tour, I learned lots of interesting trivia like how President Clinton is the only person ever allowed to mix flavors at the Creamery and that there are over 700 students organizations.  I also heard that the reason the sororities reside in residence halls is because of a law that a dwelling in which more than 8 women live in is considered a brothel.

Wait a second, what?  I’ve heard my share of ridiculous laws, but this sounded a little far-fetched.

I’m sure most of you have heard about the “brothel law”.  Some people say that it is the reason the sororities are located in the residence halls.  In fact, today in Pollock Commons I overheard a group sitting behind me discussing this very thing.  I decided to do a little investigating to see how much truth there was to this common conversation topic.

Just the facts

  1. Sororities had houses up until the late 1940’s
  2. The sororities were housed in the newly built dorms when their houses were bought up by the University
  3. Neither State College Borough, nor the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have laws specifically preventing a large group of women (or men) from owning or renting a residence
  4. The laws/ordinances only deal with zoning restrictions, which prevent more than three, unrelated people from living with each other in the residential zones

Hit “Read More” for the details on this timeless Penn State myth.

[Photo taken by Andy Colwell for the Department of Public Information]

When did they move from houses to dorms?

Let’s go back in time to the late 1940’s, after the end of the Second World War.  As droves of GI’s returned home seeking an education, Penn State struggled with finding a place to house them.  Conveniently for the University, sororities had houses and cottages located immediately adjacent to parts of campus.  Penn State bought the houses, knocked them down and built residence halls on the land.  My best assessment of the former location of these cottages (based off the age of the dorms) is the South and West residence hall areas (built in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s).  After the new dorms were built, the University extended offers to sororities to rent out suites and floors in the residence halls around campus, a tradition that continues to this day.

Where’s the myth from?

Alright, so we’ve figured out the real reason behind sororities not having houses.  Let’s get to the bottom of the rest of the “brothel law” myth.  State College borough is organized into three main zones: commercial, university and residence.  Under a State College ordinance, a dwelling located in a residential zone cannot have more than three, unrelated people occupying it.  The reason behind this rule is to prevent college housing from overrunning family housing areas, therefore driving down home values and making the surrounding area less child-friendly.  In other words, borough ordinances on housing are dependent only on relation, not gender.  If a large group (or small) of women can find a house located in a commercial zone, they are more than welcome to rent or own the property.  The problem is, most homes were converted into residence zones a long time ago.

The university and commercial zones (which include the dorms and the large apartment complexes) do not have the person limitation that the residential zone does.  My queries of several databases and Google have not revealed a PA State Law that specifically says that any number of women in one house is considered a brothel.  Provisions do however, talk about groups of non-related individuals living in one house.  These provisions say that local governments must decide the exact number of non-related people for themselves.

So there you have it, folks.  Onward State has debunked a classic Penn State myth.  If you have supporting or refuting evidence related to this topic, feel free to leave a comment.  I don’t pretend to be an expert in law or real estate.

About the Author

Steve S.

Steve Sharer is a Security and Risk Analysis major and an overall good guy. He brings Onward State readers enticing posts such as "Question of the Day" and "Campus Explorer" and will continue to do so until he becomes the President of the United States of America in 2024.


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