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Borough Council Debates Housing Issues

By Geoff Rushton

Housing was the key focus of discussion for the State College Borough Council on Monday night, with a lengthy debate over potential exemption of graduate students from the definition of student homes in the housing ordinance resulting in plans for further discussion.

Council also received a special report on the borough’s Homestead Investment Program, and a opted to make no changes to the inclusionary housing distribution requirement.

In November, former council member Sarah Klinetob asked the council to consider exempting students enrolled in doctoral programs from the definition of student home in the State College Zoning Ordinance. Since then, the Planning Commission and staff have considered the proposal. In the ordinance, “student home” is defined as “Any living arrangement within a one-family dwelling, one-family dwelling with an apartment, or two-family dwelling by persons who are unrelated by blood, marriage or legal adoption and are attending undergraduate or graduate programs offered by colleges or universities or are on semester break or summer break from studies at colleges or universities, or any combination of such persons.”

Planning staff called the proposal “problematic” because of the number and variation of graduate degree programs and the challenges it would present to landlords and borough enforcement. The commission also said there was concern over the loss of owner-occupied homes in the borough. Ultimately staff recommended no change, and council considered including it in the comprehensive update of the borough zoning code, which would take several years to complete, Borough Manager Tom Fontaine said.

“There is no reason to wait three to five years to do the right thing for graduate students,” said Kevin Horne, president of Penn State’s Graduate and Professional Student Association and General Manager of Onward State. “It seems to me that because graduate students are virtually indistinguishable from young professionals and because graduate students aren’t part of the issue the student zoning ordinance attempts to solve, it is arbitrary to exclude them from the non-student renting pool.”

“I miss the dignity I had as a professional before taking residence in State College as a Ph.D. student,” said geography Ph.D. student Morteza Karimzadeh. “The current zoning regulation does nothing but serve opportunistic landlords who take advantage of this limited market. “

Several more graduate students, including Klinetob, spoke in favor of the exemption as well as undergraduate student representative shawn Bengali. In the end, council agreed to schedule a joint meeting with the Planning Commission to discuss the issue further and make recommendations moving forward.

No Change to Inclusionary Housing

Council previously asked the Planning Commission to review the zoning code requirement that requires inclusionary housing from being clustered or segregated from market-rate units in the same building. Council members had expressed concern about mixing families and students on the same floors in a proposed East College Avenue building.

Borough staff conducted a peer review that largely found communities recommend mixing units, and such a distribution is “a perception of the public good that it would result in greater fairness…”

The council voted to leave the requirement unchanged. Currently, no borough buildings have inclusionary units mixed among market rate units, with building developers opting instead to pay an in lieu of fee or building them off-site.

Homestead Investment Program

Authorized by council in December 2013, the Homestead Investment Program to advance opportunities for homeownership and to maintain safe, stable and attractive neighborhoods. Prior to resale, the Redevelopment Authority places a restrictive covenant on the property to ensure the home remains an owner-occupied residence.

In a report on the program, Real Estate Advisory Committee Chair Ron Madrid said the first three homes purchased through the program have not been sold. The goals of the program, he said, are laudable but do not have clearly defined objectives and the program “is not being executed optimally.”

Homes purchased through the program are on West Prospect Avenue and South Allen Street at a total cost of $878,000. Madrid recommended the program cease further purchases through the end of 2016 and focus on resale.

He also recommended the possibility of raising the price cap above its current $400,000 limit to make available homes that are more move-in ready. Council President Thomas Daubert said buying more expensive properties would seem counter to the program’s intent, saying “The program is for people who can in no way afford $500,000.”

Madrid also suggested program funds could be used to purchase lower-priced houses that are then improved by the borough before resale.

“The key point for me is to make mid-value housing available to working residents,” council member Theresa Lafer said in agreeing with Madrid’s suggestion to improve homes before resale. “We need to make sure permanent residents who want to live and work here can afford to move in.”

Council will discuss the report further at a future work session.

Student asks for marijuana penalty change

During public comment, Luis Rolfo, a Penn State senior who expects to graduate in May, asked council to consider changes to the penalty for marijuana possession in the borough.

“I would like State College Borough Council to consider an ordinance that allows police to enact a civil penalty for cannabis possession,” Rolfo said. “This… would be similar to those passed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This would not legalize cannabis in State College, but will give police an easier means of dealing with infractions and allow for a quicker and easier solution for all parties.”

Rolfo noted criminal drug convictions result in termination of federal student aid, and that through discussions with borough officials he believes a civil penalty is feasible in State College. He added that since he is graduating and moving away, he does not intend a change for his own benefit but rather for future students living in the borough. Council agreed to discuss the proposal at a future meeting.

Search for Next Police Chief Under Way

Borough Manager Fontaine said recruitment among internal candidates to become the next State College Police chief would begin Tuesday. Current Chief Tom King is scheduled to retire at the end of August.

Fontaine outlined a timeline, saying a panel will rate candidates in the second half of April and candidates will be interviewed individually in early May. Later in May finalists will give public presentations and a final candidate is expected to be presented to the council by early June.

Fontaine added that discussions are under way for King to continue with the borough in a civilian role. As an assistant borough manager for public safety, several enforcement offices, including police, would be consolidated under his purview. “This would make us better able to have coordinated and consolidated enforcement.”

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