The following published in my biweekly column in today’s Diamondback. The views expressed don’t necessarily represent the views of this site or its other authors.
If you go to city council meetings on any given Tuesday, you are likely to find two students in attendance. One is student liaison Jesse Blitzstein, and the other a Diamondback reporter. Indeed, it’s hard for students to think of anything more boring than these weekly meetings. Zoning amendments, curb cut debates and speed bumps don’t draw students en masse. Despite its reputation as a powerless governing body, the council does wield some power. Recently, it’s discovered a series of ingenious and underhanded ways to sort out the city’s population and determine where and how students live. So I’m forced to come forward and reveal a disturbing and largely unnoticed trend – the council consistently attempts to suppress student housing in College Park.
It has developed a threefold strategy to achieve this goal and manipulate the city housing market. These policies, combined with the increasing demand students have for housing near the campus, translate into the desperate housing crunch we face today. This means high rents now and even higher rents in the near future.
Last year the council enacted its “rent stabilization ordinance,” capping single-family house rents at 1 percent of a building’s assessed value. Students were quick to realize this policy did nothing to address the real reason for the high cost of renting in College Park – sheer lack of housing. The city’s vacancy rate stands at an amazingly low 2.8 percent, and students have shown that they are willing to pay a premium to live near the campus in what basically amounts to slum housing. Indeed, the rent stabilization ordinance explicitly states the council’s goal of “reducing the number of single-family homes that are rental properties,” in order to “stabilize neighborhoods.” One might logically conclude that, after taking action removing students from neighborhoods, the council would do everything it could to facilitate more student towers like the University View.
That, unfortunately, is not the case. There are three major projects being planned: The 17-story Northgate Condos next to the University View, the 7-story Mosaic at Turtle Creek behind Hillel and the 9-story building slated for construction on the present-day City Hall site. The council requires developers of these projects to include covenants in deeds that prohibit most of the units from becoming rentals. This policy abandons the free market and pursues a blind and unsubstantiated whim that these sites are somehow amenable to non-student residents. College Park developers cringe at these sorts of exactions, as do the banks that finance their projects.
As if the situation weren’t already dire enough, the council has yet another trick up its sleeve. Along with the county council, the city council is pursuing a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would arbitrarily designate a boundary outside which [they think] new student housing [should]
couldnot go, and charge a hefty “impact fee” on any new developments not within the boundary. The program already exists, but the council wants to narrow and complicate the existing boundary, thus distorting the land market around the university even further.
Sure, students are rowdy, and it can be a pain to live next to us, but we have the same right to live in College Park as anyone else. Owner-occupancy requirements not only hurt College Park’s development potential, they are downright immoral – not all that dissimilar from discriminatory housing policies that excluded “undesirable” people before the 1968 Civil Rights Act. The perverse incentives the council has created amount to nothing more than a distraction from reality – College Park simply needs more housing. If the council truly wants to “strengthen neighborhoods,” it must work with the county to speed up and simplify the development approval process and stop pretending it knows who will live where. There is no other solution to high rents unless, of course, the council would rather students not live in College Park at all. Ultimately, city residents must embrace College Park’s more urban future. They can’t stem the tide of new construction that is upon us. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a truly great college town in the process.