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Student housing zoning probed

Council still reviewing issue about lapses in owners’ licenses due to vacant rentals

City Council members want to talk to student housing landlords in the upcoming months, after feeling uneasy this week about the city solicitor’s recommendations on how to solve a zoning issue that has led to more than two dozen empty student houses.

Last month, council heard the landlords’ request for elimination of a zoning rule that revokes student house licenses when there are no student tenants for 12 consecutive months — a rule that has proven onerous for landlords because of a 23% decline in enrollment over five years at Penn State Altoona and reductions in local living arrangements for out-of-town students due to COVID-19.

But the city can’t grant that request to fully eliminate the rule without being unfair, according to solicitor Tom Finn.

It would be unfair because it would be giving those who hold special exceptions for student houses “special treatment” that is not accorded to others who hold different types of special exceptions under the zoning law, Finn said.

Finn discussed the matter with Bill Stokan, solicitor for the city’s Zoning Hearing Board.

It could create grounds for legal challenge, Finn said.

Finn suggested a compromise that could help holders of student housing licenses, even as it softened potential inequity that could harm the holders of other types of special exceptions, he said.

Under that compromise, student house landlords could apply to renew their licenses if those licenses lapse after a year of not renting to students.

But a license holder could only obtain a renewal if another property owner hasn’t already succeeded in obtaining a student house license within the protected buffer zone around the original student house, where no additional student homes are permitted, Finn said.

The buffer zones exist to limit the concentration of student homes in neighborhoods, and they vary in size, growing larger as the zones become more spaciously residential.

While allowing property owners to apply for student homes in previously proscribed areas would put existing licenses at risk if they had lapsed, that risk is probably small, because of current market conditions in which student tenants are scarce, Finn predicted.

Mayor Matt Pacifico asked about the possibility of simply changing the rule to allow holders of student housing licenses the option of renting at any time to anyone.

That’s not feasible, because student housing regulation in Altoona is “intertwined” in the zoning ordinance, according to Finn.

Theoretically, it would be possible, however, if student housing rules were rewritten in a separate ordinance — although that would require significant legal exertions, Finn said.

The compromise proposal is unacceptable, according to landlord Pam Mitchell, contacted by phone Tuesday.

It would bait landlords to “swoop in” and gain control of currently occupied territory, she said.

It would be unfair, given that current license holders can’t find student tenants due to “circumstances beyond our control,” Mitchell said.

The compromise designed to avoid legal challenge for the city could actually result in legal challenge from license holders themselves, she said.

She would welcome the opportunity to speak to council about the matter, she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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