Jul. 21, 2015

WEST CHESTER – Legislation sponsored by Rep. Sue Helm (R-Dauphin/Lebanon), which would prevent Pennsylvania municipalities from enacting housing ordinances that discriminate against college students, Monday was the focus of a public hearing conducted by the House Local Government Committee in West Chester. Committee co-chairs, Reps. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) and Robert Freeman (D-Northampton), led the hearing, which was held at the West Chester Borough Building.

House Bill 809 would preempt any municipal ordinance that prohibits the occupation of a rental property based on the person’s matriculation status or the number of unrelated persons sharing the unit. Under the bill, municipalities are authorized to enact ordinances that contain the following restrictions on rental properties:

1.) A restriction based on reasonable and sufficient parking for the vehicles of the occupants of the unit.
2.) A restriction capping the number of occupants at no more than two per bedroom.
3.) A restriction based on any unique health and safety concerns or unresolved code violations.

“Students should not be discriminated against simply because they are students,” Helm told committee members. “We believe it is entirely within reason for municipalities to enact and enforce rules to regulate such things as parking, noise levels, health and safety concerns, or code violations. However, we also believe it is unfair and unreasonable to attempt to regulate these issues by singling out students based on the incorrect assumption that they will be problem citizens and undesirable neighbors who will have a negative impact on the community and its quality of life.”

Committee members also heard from a number of municipal government officials and rental property owners.

Rita Dallago, executive director of the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association, spoke in support of the legislation.

“Our concern is the ordinances that discriminate against and punish rental housing providers that rent units to students,” Dallago told committee members. “The objective seems to be to reduce the number of students living in their community, or to segregate them to specific areas in their community. In the real estate world this is known as ‘red-lining,’ which is an illegal activity. Telling people where they may or may not live, based on anything other than their ability to afford the rent, should not be a function of the rental housing provider or municipality. Tenants should not be treated as second-class citizens, for they are a vital part of our economic structure.”

Vince Dunsworth, a landlord from Edinboro, testified that he believes its borough’s student housing ordinance is discriminatory.

“A class of person, in this case, students, has been scapegoated for problems in Edinboro, and then this class of person is declared as undesirable and essentially banished,” said Dunsworth. “This is pure discrimination and would be considered as such were it against an ethnic or religious group.”

Scott Zelov, a Lower Merion Township commissioner, testified about the positive impact its student housing ordinance has had on the Montgomery County community, which is home to five schools.

“Since its enactment in 1989, there has been a significant reduction in the number of houses occupied by students,” Zelov said. “The result has been the preservation of the residential character of the affected neighborhoods. The proposed legislation would have devastating effect on Lower Merion Township.”

“Zoning regulations that address occupancy and student homes for State College and other Pennsylvania municipalities help us balance the impact of studentification of our neighborhoods,” testified State College Borough Manager Thomas Fountaine. “House Bill 809 would significantly reduce and restrict local municipal authority to address these serious issues that are unique to our college towns.”

The hearing was held in West Chester Borough Council Chambers, which was filled to capacity with local residents, a majority of whom are opposed to the legislation.

“I think we got a good picture of the issues we have to deal with,” Harper told the crowd at the conclusion of the hearing.

Committee and other House members in attendance included Reps. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery), John McGinnis (R-Blair), Scott Petri (R-Bucks), James Santora (R-Delaware), Dan Truitt (R-Chester) and David Zimmerman (R-Lancaster).

A video recording of the entire hearing will be available for viewing soon on Helm’s website, SueHelm.net.

Representative Sue Helm
104th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Andy Briggs
SueHelm.net / Facebook.com/RepHelm