When Jimmy McMillan founded the “Rent Is Too Damn High” party in New York, he was onto something. However, while McMillan poignantly identified the symptom, he failed to accurately diagnose the underlying cause of the problem. The reason rent has grown so outrageously expensive is simple: Restrictive regulations have drastically limited the supply of rental housing while at the same time, the housing crash and the surge in gas prices have increased the demand. As with any other economic good, when the demand for rental housing increases faster than the supply, the inevitable outcome is higher prices.
These factors have caused the price of rent to skyrocket nearly everywhere in the country, but the crisis is particularly acute in university neighborhoods because students — undergrads, specifically — are widely perceived to be undesirable neighbors. As a result, long-term residents in the surrounding communities go to great lengths to limit the number of undergrads who can live near their homes, while also doing as much as possible to encourage more desirable residents (e.g. University of Minnesota faculty, grad students and downtown workers) to move in. This strategy may reduce the number of nuisances long-term residents need to deal with, but it comes at an enormous cost: Student housing is far more expensive than it needs to be.
Sometimes university communities don’t bother to disguise their desire to prevent more students from moving in next door. In August, for instance, the St. Paul city council acquiesced to local homeowners’ demands and imposed a moratorium against all new student housing in the St. Thomas University area. In most cases, however, anti-student policies are coated with at least a thin veneer of justification in order to conceal the exclusionary motives that underlie them.
A particularly egregious example of an anti-student policy is the ordinance that restricts the number of occupants who can live in a house to three unrelated adults. This regulation applies to large swathes of the University of Minnesota district, including many houses that contain four, five or six bedrooms. The policy is transparently absurd and student renters routinely disobey it, but they are often forced to take extraordinary measures to evade capture and more than 100 students have been successfully evicted under the law over the previous decade.
Councilman Cam Gordon, who represents part of the University area, has attempted to change the ordinance so that the occupancy limit would vary based on the size of the housing unit, thereby permitting more people to live in the larger houses in the area. Further, Gordon wants to change the law so that it would no longer privilege related persons over unrelated persons. His proposals have failed thus far because local homeowners have been adamantly opposed to any revision of the existing ordinance.
Gordon’s opponents claim the current limit is necessary to protect residents’ safety, but it’s hard to see how safety could be endangered by allowing six people to live in a six-bedroom house, or how DNA similarity could make related residents safer than unrelated ones. Their second objection gets at the real issue: Relaxing the ordinance would lead to an increase of nuisances such as noise and litter. That may be true, but those nuisances have no connection to the size of students’ living quarters. The existing ordinance only addresses those nuisances indirectly by reducing the student population altogether.
A second example of a limitation on the student housing supply is neighborhood opposition to the construction of new three- and four-bedroom apartment units. I learned about this opposition at a Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association meeting where a developer presented a proposal that would have contained 17 percent four-bedroom units and 17 percent three-bedroom units. The MHNA board was fiercely opposed to these larger units. At one point MHNA President Doug Carlson asked in frustration, “Who else is going to want to live there?” When the developer returned at the next board meeting, all the four-bedroom units and all but a handful of the three-bedroom units had been removed from the proposal.
This is not an isolated example; MHNA minutes show that larger units have been a point of contention against other developments as well. When I asked Carlson to explain his opposition, he was straightforward. “There’s a preference that underclassmen be mainly up by campus, on the east side of the [35W] freeway. [The west side is] quieter, more residential. It’s not a policy, but on the board, more of a preference.” Put less charitably, neighborhood residents would prefer to keep students quarantined away from their property.
This desire is not devoid of justification. Undergrads certainly do have a propensity to engage in loud, drunken behavior. However, I feel that there are better, more direct ways to address those concerns. For example, this newspaper reported in a March 2011 article that noise complaints in Marcy-Holmes had fallen dramatically from 95 in 2009 to 50 in 2010 and were on track to be even lower this year. The article attributed this result to the direct efforts by the University’s Student Neighborhood Liaison program. This stunning success serves as a model for the type of direct, cooperative efforts that can address neighborhood concerns without harming students.
Everyone needs to do their part to improve the current situation. Undergrads need to strive to be better neighbors. Policymakers need to do a better job weighing students’ interests when they consider regulations. Finally, neighborhoods need to work constructively to address nuisance concerns, rather than trying to solve the problem by excluding students. Together, we can work to make the rent less damn high.