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Is Middletown's residency controversy over? Opinions of mayor, Penn State student leader differ

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 5/30/19

After hearing Mayor James H. Curry III say it could lead to Middletown becoming a mostly rental suburb of Penn State Harrisburg, a majority of borough councilors Tuesday declined to support amending …

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Is Middletown's residency controversy over? Opinions of mayor, Penn State student leader differ

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After hearing Mayor James H. Curry III say it could lead to Middletown becoming a mostly rental suburb of Penn State Harrisburg, a majority of borough councilors May 28 declined to support amending an ordinance that prohibits more than two unrelated people from living in a single-family residence.

But one outspoken proponent of changing the law — Penn State Harrisburg Student Government Association President Riley Cagle — told the Press & Journal after the council meeting that the issue isn’t dead.

“This issue isn’t over. At the end of the day, my students still don’t have affordable access to housing,” Cagle said. “I certainly believe there are solutions out there, but until my students are given the rights they deserve under the law, this isn’t over.”

Curry on May 28 had said amending the ordinance to allow up to four unrelated people living in a house would increase the financial burden on all Middletown residents and businesses, by leading to more homes in the town being converted to rental units occupied by students just nine months out of the year.

That would further reduce water usage in the town — leading to higher surcharges being imposed on residents by Suez, the private company running Middletown’s water and sewer systems under a 50-year lease — and a decline in electric revenue the town depends on to balance the general fund budget each year, Curry said.

Curry noted there is no legal justification for changing the ordinance — which he said has been in place in Middletown since the 1970s — as such prohibitions in other municipalities have been upheld by federal courts.

The borough should not be wasting tax dollars or time fixing “something that is not broken,” the mayor said.

The issue at hand

Opponents seeking to change the ordinance — led by Diana McGlone, a landlord and former borough councilor; and Cagle — had raised concerns for months.

However, council and borough staff had been adamant in saying the borough could not consider changing the ordinance — or even talk about it publicly — so long as McGlone was pursuing in Dauphin County Court an appeal of a 2018 Middletown zoning hearing board decision upholding a notice the borough issued against her for allowing four unrelated Penn State Harrisburg students to rent a house McGlone’s company owned on West Water Street.

McGlone and her company, Sweet Arrow Properties LLC, withdrew the appeal on May 7. McGlone told the Press & Journal she did so to prevent further spending of borough tax dollars and her own money on the litigation.

Curry — who admitted to being “extremely frustrated” about the inability to talk about the ordinance until now — said “the real basis” for McGlone dropping her appeal was because “her attorney did his job and he told her what the law was” regarding the prohibition being upheld by courts.

Curry pledged if council voted to amend the ordinance to allow up to four unrelated people to live in a single-family house, he would veto it.

Following Curry’s statement, Councilor Robert Reid proposed that council put on the agenda of its next meeting June 4 a vote to amend the ordinance to allow up to four unrelated people to live in a house, instead of two as now.

Curry advised Council President Angela Lloyd that a majority of councilors would have to support listing the item on the June 4 agenda in order for that to be done.

Council Vice President Michael Woodworth said he too wanted to see the item on the June 4 agenda. However, none of the five other councilors offered support.

Lloyd referred to the points Curry brought up regarding the potential impact of the amendment on water and sewer rate increases being imposed on residents by Suez, and the loss of electric revenue, as key in her opposing changing the ordinance.

Landlords who benefit from the change by being able to rent to more Penn State Harrisburg students could absorb those added costs by passing them on to tenants, Lloyd said. The rest of Middletown residents would not have that option.

“I would not feel good voting for something that is going to create an issue for the residents on something we have been working so hard to fix,” Lloyd said, referring to council’s legal battle to change provisions in the 50-year Suez lease that council contends are unfair to residents — such as language pertaining to what triggers Suez being able to impose a surcharge to recoup lost revenue from a water sales shortfall.

“By increasing the number of rentals, it is only going to decrease the amount of water that we are using, and that is going to be passed on to the people that live here year-round. I cannot do that,” she said.

Reid after the meeting told the Press & Journal he wanted to see a vote June 4 because “the ordinance was passed back in the 1970s. This is 2019.”

“We are a university town. I think there should be some changes to the ordinance to go along with 2019 — to just increase it by two,” Reid said.

He downplayed potential impact on water use and electric revenue from houses rented to students being empty for several months a year, suggesting the amount of water and electricity students use while living in Middletown would make up the difference.

Asked after the meeting to comment on why he wanted to see the amendment listed on the June 4 agenda for a vote, Woodworth in an emailed statement said: “The reason I supported Councilor Reid’s suggestion being added to the upcoming agenda for consideration was not because I wanted to immediately change the ordinance, but rather because I wanted to support continuing the discussion of the topic.”

“As I touched on in my statements at the meeting, I will not consider changing the ordinance in any way that will adversely affect other residents of the community,” Woodworth said. “However, I can recognize that members of our community are already feeling negative effects, due to the way the ordinance currently is.”

“While serving our residents on borough council, it is my goal to find solutions for them where they have problems. If a balanced solution exists, that works for all members of our community, then I would like to try to find that with the help of my fellow councilors.”

Penn State buying up town?

Curry during the May 28 meeting said the driving force behind calls to change the ordinance is so that McGlone and other landlords can profit more from the lucrative rental market from students attending growing Penn State Harrisburg — the second biggest campus in the Penn State system behind University Park with about 5,000 students.

Curry predicted if the ordinance is amended to allow up to four unrelated people to live in a house, “I promise you that Penn State Harrisburg will begin buying up lots in this town. Lebanon Valley College (from which Curry graduated) did it, Penn State Harrisburg will do it. It is more feasible to buy up houses in town than to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building your own student housing on their campus. That is a fact.”

More than 50 percent of housing stock in Middletown is already rental units, the mayor said. “If you increase the rental population to 60, 65, 70 percent, you are losing your identity as a town.”

“I chose this town not because it was a campus, I chose this town because it was a town,” said Curry, who moved to Middletown in 2010. He was elected mayor in 2013 and re-elected in 2017.

Curry noted Councilor Ian Reddinger’s suggestion that the ordinance could be amended to allow up to four unrelated people living together, in return for requiring landlords provide at least two off-street parking spots.

“It’s a decent compromise” but ultimately unacceptable in the oldest town in Dauphin County, the mayor said. “It goes back to the identity of the town. Now you are going to start paving property to accommodate off-street parking for students. Talk about paving paradise to put up a parking lot.”

Curry referred to a research paper Cagle had written and submitted to the borough regarding the ordinance, in which Cagle said the supply of housing is not meeting “the growing demand that is coming with university expansion” at Penn State Harrisburg.

Curry noted how Cagle in his paper went on to say that, according to Penn State Harrisburg Chancellor John Mason, the campus “is hoping to reach a student population of 10,000 in the next 10 to 15 years.”

“Whose fault is that?” Curry said, referring to the lack of housing for Penn State Harrisburg students noted in Cagle’s report. “If their goal is to increase their student population by several thousand students within the next couple years, then Penn State Harrisburg needs to think about where their students are laying their heads at night.”

“You don’t get to say ‘I’m bringing 3,000 more students and the town is going to figure out how to deal with,’” Curry said. “That’s inappropriate in my mind.”

Support for the ban

Support for preserving the ban against more than two unrelated people living in a house has come from some borough residents who say it deters homeowners from converting their owner-occupied homes into rental units for students.

This contributes to neighborhood deterioration and the lowering of property values, supporters of the ordinance contend.

They say it also worsens an existing shortage of on-street parking in the borough, from students moving into the neighborhoods bringing more vehicles.

Cagle — who on April 25 met with borough Manager Ken Klinepeter and Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Lower Swatara Township, concerning the ordinance — has said his 17-page paper is not meant to represent the views of Penn State Harrisburg but intended as a starting point for discussing possible changes to the prohibition.

That’s anything but what Cagle said he believes took place during the May 28 council meeting, Cagle told the Press & Journal.

“I’m very disappointed and hurt by some of the things I heard at the council meeting. I came there expecting a dialogue. I don’t believe that’s what happened. It was a very one-way conversation,” he said.

Responding, Curry said “the allegation that the meeting was a one-way dialogue I think was a misrepresentation. The dialogue has been one way from their end for several months, as we have not been permitted to talk due to the pending litigation. In terms of the meeting itself, the dialogue cannot be considered one way simply because Mr. Cagle did not have answers to our questions.”

For example, Cagle had been pressed during the meeting by borough Solicitor Jim Diamond regarding Cagle not revealing the identities of landlords and students he interviewed for his paper.

Diamond also pressed Cagle on assertions Cagle made in the paper about landlords not wanting to classify their property as student housing, because they would have to pay more for insurance.

Student housing ordinance

As Curry and Diamond both pointed out during the meeting, the borough has a separate ordinance regulating student housing that allows up to four unrelated people to live in the same residence — as opposed to the prohibition against more than two unrelated people, which is meant to apply to non-student housing throughout the borough.

According to the zoning ordinance, student housing is “[A] building containing three or more apartments, each containing up to four persons (who may be unrelated) and who are attending undergraduate or graduate programs offered by colleges or universities or are on semester break or summer break from studies at colleges or universities, or any combination of such persons. The residents of a student home share living expenses and may live and cook as a single housekeeping unit. This definition does not include group homes or boarding, lodging or rooming houses. This definition shall include, but not be limited to, institutionally owned dormitories for students enrolled in an institution of higher education, with common access or independent outside access.”

Student housing is not allowed in all residential zoning districts, however.

Diamond at one point noted it is legal for the borough to be “discriminating against students” concerning housing, as students “are not a protected class. I don’t think the ordinance does (discriminate against students) but if the legislative body wanted to, they could say these are the rules for student housing and these are the rules for non-student housing.”

Cagle afterward said he was taken aback by Diamond’s statement.

“It very much frightens me to hear things such as we are allowed to discriminate against students,” he said. “That really frightens me, and it should frighten students everywhere across this state.”

“Neither I nor the borough council is discriminating against students. Rather, we are protecting Middletown residents,” Curry told the Press & Journal in response. “Middletown Borough does protect students, which is why there is a separate student housing ordinance to ensure that they have access to student housing within the borough. There is a separate ordinance that governs that, which is never mentioned by the other side” and which allows four unrelated students to live together.

Curry said neither Cagle nor anyone else has proposed any solutions to the challenge amending the ordinance poses regarding exacerbating the Suez water shortfall issue, and the loss of electric revenue.

Regarding Cagle’s assertion that his quest to change the ordinance isn’t over, Curry clearly believes the issue has been put to rest.

“Mr. Cagle and the anonymous landlords he has met with really need to review federal case law which clearly confirms the current status of the ordinance as constitutional,” Curry said. “Despite his representation to the contrary this is over, and that’s not me saying it, it’s the federal courts.”

If the issue is Penn State Harrisburg’s ability to provide affordable housing for its students in order to expand, Cagle should be bringing that concern to Penn State Harrisburg, the mayor said.

“College is a choice. Penn State Harrisburg’s tuition and housing rates are available on their website,” he said. “When a student enrolls they know all the costs associated with their enrollment. No one is forcing them to attend Penn State Harrisburg. If the cost of student housing at Penn State Harrisburg is too high or the accommodations too little, that is an issue to be discussed with Penn State Harrisburg.”