Off-campus housing options shrinking for IUP students

IUP student Robert Davenport collects his mail at his off-campus apartment. Photo by Rachael Parker

IUP student Robert Davenport collects his mail at his off-campus apartment. Photo by Rachael Parker

By Rachael Parker

INDIANA — Robert N. Davenport doesn’t want to live in an apartment building full of college students. Unfortunately for Davenport, a senior economics major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, many Indiana borough home owners don’t want him moving into their neighborhood, either. And recent zoning changes in Indiana Borough are making it even harder for students to rent houses off campus, while enrollment at IUP continues to climb.

A Sept. 22 statement from the university boasted a record-high 14,149 students enrolled at its main campus in fall 2009. IUP’s residence halls contain enough beds for 3,900 students, according to the Office of Housing and Residence Life.

The university requires freshmen to live on campus.  And the IUP Web site guarantees fall semester, on-campus housing to incoming freshmen who request it by May 1 of that year.

But the site warns that on-campus housing, especially in the newer, suite-style residences, is “limited.” During the 2009-2010 academic year, as illustrated by letters the university mailed to students who enrolled late, residence halls were at full capacity. Those letters suggested students, even first-year students, find their own housing off campus.

“After I got accepted, I got a letter from IUP saying there wasn’t any room left in the residence halls,” said Davenport, 26, who transferred to IUP for the 2009-2010 academic year, during a May 3 interview at his Philadelphia Street apartment. “I wasn’t planning on living on campus. But the university didn’t really help me find alternative housing.”

Davenport received his acceptance letter in July. By that time, he said, it was “damn near impossible” to find affordable rental housing near campus. He signed a lease in early August for an apartment just outside the borough and commutes to campus. On foot, Davenport said, the walk to campus takes about 30 minutes.

About 8,500 IUP students live off-campus, according to David L. Kirk, director of Indiana borough’s Department of Planning and Code Enforcement. They may have an even tougher time finding housing once the borough’s Renaissance Project is in full swing.

The project, set in motion by the Borough Council in 2006, includes the Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) and Overlay Zone as a “key initiative,” according to the borough Web site. The plan is to “create home-ownership opportunities and enhance the quality of life” in the Elm Street Neighborhood bordering the IUP campus.

The Elm Street Neighborhood, named for one of several streets it contains, encompasses an area of about 50 square blocks, as is shown by the Renaissance Project Master Plan. Carter Avenue, Wayne Avenue, Church Street and Fourth Street mark its boundaries., a Web site representing the commercial section of the borough, states that a goal in the Indiana Elm Street Project is to “promote the conversion of existing student rental houses to owner-occupied single family homes.”

The project is slated to be completed in five years, Kirk said in a November 2009 telephone interview. It is part of a statewide program aiming to aesthetically enhance small towns, according to the Pennsylvania Downtown Center Web site.

The Overlay Zone borders the north, east and west edges of the IUP campus like a horseshoe, according to a color-coded district map on the borough’s Web site. This area, stretching from 13th Street and Oakland Avenue in the southwest to Eight and Church streets in the north, curves around the university to Penn and Carter avenues in the southeast. The Renaissance Project includes construction of the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex and IUP’s $270 million on-campus housing construction project.

One hundred off-campus units will convert from rental to single-family-owned in the Elm Street Neighborhood area alone, the Renaissance Project Master Plan shows. An additional 75 new units for married or graduate students will line Wayne Avenue between Maple and Locust streets.

Most of the borough is already zoned R-1, or single-family residential, the district map indicates. However, 3,135 non-family households make up about two-thirds of 4,804 total households in the borough, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, A total of 3,038 rental housing units exist in the borough, meaning two-thirds of all borough homes are rental properties.

The Residential Preservation Ordinance, passed August 2007, states that R-1 and R-2 “family dwellings” no longer can be converted to student housing, Kirk said. While the ordinance does not apply to homes currently being rented to students, any student rentals that remain unoccupied for nine months will be rezoned residential. Additionally, a student rental that does not house its maximum number of occupants for nine consecutive months will have its maximum occupancy lowered.

“It kind of sounds anti-student, but the intent is to complement the Overlay Zone and provide incentive to developers,” Kirk said.

With residence halls filled to the max and the number of students attending IUP at a record high, many students have turned to off-campus housing. When the Overlay Zone nears completion, that rising number of students will have to squeeze closer to the campus.

Indiana resident James G. Wakefield. Photo by Josh Mosse

Indiana resident James G. Wakefield. Photo by Josh Mosse

Not everyone is happy about the zoning switch. Indiana resident James G. Wakefield voiced his displeasure in an Oct. 14 letter to the editor of The Indiana Gazette. He said he attended the October Borough Council meeting and suggested that the current functional-family ordinances be repealed.

“I live a half-block from the IUP campus, and under these ordinances, I am not permitted to rent or sell my home to someone who wants to put students in the property; I also must rent or sell the property to a functional family,” Wakefield’s letter reads. “Some people do not want to raise a family in that kind of neighborhood. Is this the best possible use of the property to the seller and the purchaser?”

Wakefield added that one particular house in Indiana Borough’s R-1 zone sold for $45,000 in 1989. It sold for $36,500 20 years later – $8,500 less than before, a decrease of 19 percent. Wakefield’s letter ended by asking the borough why it would devalue property owned by him and others with R-1 and R-2 residential zones when it could collect more transfer taxes otherwise when the homes are sold.

However, Kirk said most residents are in favor of the changes. The only exceptions, he said, are people who planned on converting their property to student rentals.

“They feel that the law is devaluing their property,” Kirk said. “Their property is worth what it’s worth.”

While the Elm Street Neighborhood plan is intended to push students out, the TND Overlay Zone seems to be trying to squeeze them in. Developer Dave Moore is building a new, “high-density” structure to house students near South Seventh and Washington streets, Kirk said. Another four-story complex is being built in the 1000 block of Philadelphia Street.

Students have already begun signing up to rent apartments in the complexes, according to an April 4 article in The Indiana Gazette.

Kirk described the new buildings as “much more student-friendly” environments compared to rental houses. He cited examples of permanent residents calling the police on noisy students in older developments.

“The idea is to create an environment more conducive to students,” Kirk said. “The difference in lifestyles created a lot of conflict between them and their permanent-resident neighbors.”

High-density housing may sound like a solution to the Borough Council, but Davenport, the IUP student, said if he’s still in town for the 2010-2011 academic year, he’ll be renting off-campus in the borough. He said he enjoys the quiet and privacy that come with living in a house and doesn’t find high-density student housing appealing.

“It would be annoying to live really close to a bunch of students – louder, harder to study,” Davenport said. “I’m 26 years old. I’m done with living in crappy apartments.”


Sidebar: For more info

For more information on this story, contact the following sources:

David L. Kirk
Department of Planning and Code Enforcement
Indiana Borough
80 N. 8th St.
Indiana, PA 15701
Phone: 724-465-6691

Office of Housing and Residence Life
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Suites on Maple-West, Suite G-37
1099 Maple St.
Indiana, PA 15705-1075
Phone: 724-357-2696

Indiana Borough
80 N 8th St.
Indiana, PA 15710
Phone:  724-465-6691

Downtown Indiana Inc.
39 North 7th St., Suite 101
Indiana PA 15701
Phone: 724-463-6110

Pennsylvania Downtown Center
130 Locust Street
Suite 101
Harrisburg, PA 17101
Phone: 717-233-4675


Sidebar: On-campus housing pushes up off-campus rents

As the on-campus amenities get fancier, the cost of living on campus at IUP has increased by at least 80 percent. Students living in suites aren’t the only ones with thinner wallets, however. On-campus room and board prices also seem to be affecting off-campus renters.

“Typically, the university sets the bar,” said Indiana Borough Department of Planning and Code Enforcement Director David L. Kirk in a November 2009 telephone interview. “We’re hearing from students and students’ parents that they’re paying $1,800 a semester and still ride a bus, drive to campus or have a long walk.”

Students usually pay more to live closer to campus. Low-end rates for off-campus housing near IUP are around $1,800 per semester. On the flip side, some students pay $3,000 or more each semester for housing, Kirk said.

“It’s a concern of the municipality,” he added.

Sarah E. Morrow, 22, a senior anthropology major at IUP, has seen off-campus rents rise after the suites were erected.

“I have spoken with two landlords who have admitted to raising the rent largely due to the cost of the suites,” she said in a May 6 email interview. “One place went from $2,100 to $2,300” – a 9.5 percent hike.

While suite-style living comes at a cost, Kirk said students seem to want “modern amenities” like individual bedrooms, parking and control of the heating and air conditioning, which isn’t always available in an older house.

Kirk said that as more off-campus housing is renovated, rates should start to even out. IUP, however, doesn’t face the same pressures to keep room and board affordable. The university has an advantage because it makes its own rules, Kirk said, like requiring freshman students to live on campus.

“The name of the game is to keep those buildings filled with bodies,” he said. “IUP can make sure its $300 million student housing is full.”

 –By Rachael Parker 

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