City looking to State College for student housing control

In response to continued neighbor opposition to the creation of student homes in Altoona, city officials are considering alternative student housing policies – including a successful “nuisance property” program that applies to all rental housing in State College.

Started in its current form in 2004, the State College program makes landlords responsible for problems – assigning points for violations, requiring corrective action plans for problem properties and suspending rental licenses for especially troublesome ones.

The program caused “an immediate, abrupt and permanent decrease” in ordinance and criminal code violations, according to a borough study that compared pre- and post-ordinance violation rates at troublesome properties.

Passed several years ago, Altoona’s student housing ordinance limits the density of student homes in neighborhoods, targeting college students in general, Altoona Planning Director Lee Slusser said.

The State College ordinance targets bad behavior, he said.

“It actually addresses the problem more directly,” said Slusser, who previously worked for the Centre Region Council of Governments. “In a way, it’s more fair.”

State College officials recently made a presentation on the program to Altoona officials.

“I would definitely have to look into this,” said City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, who was not present for the presentation.

But he wants to hear from city staff, landlords and “definitely residents,” he said.

The State College program could become a corollary to Altoona’s existing student housing regulation, or it could replace it, according to Slusser.

Altoona staff has “a lot of questions” about it, and “no one on council has bought into anything,” Slusser said.

Currently in Altoona, property owners can obtain a special exception for a student house from the Zoning Hearing Board if they meet a list of criteria, which includes the house being a designated distance from any other student house in residential zones, with the distance dependant on the restrictiveness of the zone.

Frequently, neighbors protest, as several did recently when property owner Joe Piotti sought permission to rent a house to students on Park Avenue in Juniata.

Tim McCaulley read a letter that spoke of noise, disturbed sleep, decline in values and safety concerns.

Piotti sought to ease concerns by saying that he’d be renting to the baseball players he coaches at Penn State Altoona and planned to exercise strict control.

But what about later landlords who might not be so careful, a neighbor asked.

As he had in other cases, Zoning Board solicitor Bill Stokan advised the neighbors to take their concerns to City Council, which is the only body with the power to adjust the city’s student housing policies.

Neighbors have gone, including Denia Carothers, who spoke to council in March about a newly designated student house on East Lincoln Avenue, which she feared would become the site of wild parties, parking congestion and poor maintenance.

Ultimately, student housing tends be OK or not depending “on what students you live beside,” Butterbaugh said. While the State College program does not just apply to student homes, the great majority of rental housing in the borough is for students, according to zoning officer John Wilson.

State College also has a student housing ordinance like Altoona’s that limits the density of student homes in neighborhoods, Wilson and inspections supervisor Kevin Kassab said.

Landlords have been “pretty accepting” of the nuisance property program, according to Kassab. Properties receive one point for minor violations – overflowing trash, high weeds, unshoveled snow, safety and maintenance issues and dog problems, according to the borough website.

They receive two points for middling violations – excess noise, disorderly conduct, alcohol problems, drugs, simple assault, harassment, fire code problems, open lewdness and indecent exposure.

And they receive three points for serious violations – furnishing alcohol to minors, aggravated assault, sexual assaults and possession with intent to deliver drugs.

Properties receive no more than three points within a 24-hour period.

Noise problems tend to be the most troublesome for the borough, Kassab said.

When properties accumulate five points within a 12-month period, the borough sends a “problem property” notice, and landlords must submit a corrective action plan or meet with borough officials to discuss the problems.

“Generally, that’s where it stops,” Kassab said.

When a property accumulates 10 points, the borough suspends the rental license, unless the borough manager agrees to allow the landlord to enter into a “consent order” based on the correction plan.

Landlords can appeal notices of suspension, first to the borough manager, then to the Rental Housing Revocation Board, then to the Centre County Court of Common Pleas.

Suspensions don’t begin until the end of the current lease, provided the lease is shorter than a year.

Since the borough has had the ordinance, only nine properties have been notified of pending suspensions – and six of those ended up with consent orders instead, Kassab said.

Consent orders have included provisions prohibiting parties with alcohol, requiring the hiring of a maintenance firm to cut grass and shovel snow, the promise of daily monitoring and compliance discussions for tenants led by borough staff, according to Kassab.

No properties are currently under suspension, although one is operating under a consent order, Kassab said.

Bill Kitt, president of the Central Pennsylvania Landlords Association, said he “wants to stay out of the fray for now” and that he’s not sure what position the association might take on a nuisance property program for Altoona until “the city gets serious.”

If Altoona adopts a nuisance property program, it’s critical that the staff enforces it with “common sense” and a willingness to “work with people,” Kassab said.

In State College, the ultimate goal is simply compliance, Wilson said.

Only a small percentage of students are a problem, Kassab said. “The majority are amazing kids.” The landlords have been OK, too.

“I’m not going to say that every landlord is thrilled,” Kassab said. “But the majority have really come to the plate.”