Gadfly’s Tour de Rentz: from Hillside to First Terrace

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Remember, Gadfly urges you — wherever you live in the City — to email Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) as an act of solidarity and to get your name on the mailing list of Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development.

Gadfly had to see for himself. He had long heard tales of Southside woe from Olga Negron and Stephen Antalics. He recently heard resident fears of the spectre of “lower Hillside” spreading upward with devastating impact. There was even talk of “existential crisis.” How could this be?

Time for Gadfly to follow his own principle. Time to look at the primary sources.

Gadfly’s Tour de Rentz starts at the foot of Hillside Ave. (approx at 531 Hillside Ave.) alongside the Zoellner Arts Center Parking Garage. It proceeds up Hillside past Thomas and Selfridge, turning on Stoneman, and ending on First Terrace.

Join him. The videos linked below are only a few seconds each.

If you know this neighborhood at all, you probably know it speeding through in a car. Let’s slow down. The Tour de Rentz is on foot.

Tour map

1) Foot of Hillside Ave: looking up the hill, student housing as far as you can see. Just about every house “signed.” The few beautifully full trees left may be an indication that at one time this was a handsome tree-lined street.

2) North (east) side of Hillside: we begin moving up on “lower Hillside,” the heavily dense student-housing section that residents of “upper Hillside” fear is in their future.

3) South (west) side of Hillside: Gadfly is struck by the long string of interesting looking houses. One can easily imagine that they were once comfortable family homes.

4) Farther up on the south (west) side of Hillside: Gadfly admits to being something of a “romantic,” but he was taken by the look of these houses — big living room windows, nice porches, once tree-lined. And the porches up high. He talked with a guy perched far above the sidewalk as he passed — lord of all he surveyed. Gadfly had to crane his neck. A feeling of the first floor on the second floor. Interesting.

5) Turning right off Hillside, south on Thomas, uphill into the Lehigh campus: Gadfly quietly orgasmic at the beautiful double that meets him. What an interesting twin. A sense of size and sturdiness. Gadfly quietly admitting to himself that he expected not to be impressed by the original quality of the homes. Gadfly quietly feeling shame at what has happened here to what once were “homes.”.

6) Turning left off Hillside, north on Thomas: looks like an apartment house, was this relatively newly built? Looks out of place with surroundings. Looks clean and nice — but out of place. Doesn’t seem to blend.

7) Back up Hillside again: encountering a “pod” of rentals on the north (east) side, a whole block that collapsed from familytude. Gadfly imagines the male householder drifting down to the Sokols for a brew or two.

8) Turning right off Hillside, south (uphill) on Selfridge: 4 out of 5 houses on the block are rentals, the corner property owner looks to be holding on to a cute house. Gadfly imagines tension in that corner house.

9) Turning left off Hillside, north on Selfridge: look at the fence and stone work on the double next to the corner house. Interesting. Gadfly getting more of an appreciation for the art of building houses on hills. Steep hills.

10) We reach upper Hillside: now predominantly homeowners, but rentals have made a breach. A kind of border crossing here. Gadfly wishes his camera had lingered more on the northside homes along Hillside here.

11) Upper Hillside: (Lousy video.) Not dominated by rentals. Yet. Solitary rental property on the right with trash in front faces well kept, flowered home with a guy gardening on the left. Not a pretty composite picture. Like a spot on a lung of this stretch of neighborhood.

12) Turning right (south), uphill, off Hillside on Stoneman: houses owned by Lehigh Properties, of the recent case about a 40-student dorm on First Terrace before the Planning Commission.

13) Gadfly quizzed separately by an adult and two students about what he was up to. They are fidgety, guilty looking. Suspicious of me. And a bit snarky. Gadfly thought it best not to incite by filming the encounters. Gadfly life expectancies are short as it is.

14) Turning right off the top of Stoneman on to First Terrace: this the spot where Lehigh Properties wants to build a 40-student dorm, knocking down 4 homes to do so. Remember that residents made a determined argument against the proposal in front of the Planning Commission to no avail — but that the Mayor broke the norm and effectively shot down the proposal. But what alternative lurks?

15) Farther along on First Terrace past the 4 houses proposed for demolition to build a large dorm: privately owned homes, signs of care for the houses, signs of domesticity, flowers, gardens, neat lawns, this is a neighborhood. So clear that the proposed dormitory development was dead wrong. Did the developer have any regard at all?

16) Farther yet on First Terrace: view across the Valley, unfortunately not video’d, an exhilarating top of the mountain feel. More clear signs of home care, more clear signs that this is a neighborhood — clear signs of the domestic life endangered by the rental scourge creeping up from below.

Remember, Gadfly urges you — wherever you live in the City — to email Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) as an act of solidarity and to get your name on the mailing list of Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development.

Please forgive Gadfly the poopy camera skills. He could name one faithful follower who should have had the job.

Time for Bethlehem residents from all parts of the city to join the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development to help with this Southside crisis

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Kim Carrrell-Smith is a 31-year resident of Bethlehem’s historic Southside, where she taught public history at Lehigh University for almost two decades. She is also an aspiring gadfly, buzzing in on issues of historic preservation, public education, city government, and other social justice issues. She tips her wings to the master gadflies who have served our community for so long!

Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development: contact Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) to show solidarity and to get on the mailing list. (THIS IS SO EASY!)

Gadfly,

As you’ve heard, we’ve reached a truly critical time for the future of Southside neighborhoods within a quarter of a mile or so of Lehigh University. The very present and future danger to our neighborhoods generally come from newer investor/developers who haven’t done their homework and may not be aware that they are risking big investments in an already crowded student housing market in which the actual number of students is unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future. But as a South Bethlehem resident, my questions don’t concern how to help those investors save their shirts; I am concerned about how we may maintain viable neighborhoods in the face of this rapidly changing investor landscape, and WHO can help with that. What’s at issue?

* What happens to residential neighborhoods when they are overrun by young college students who don’t have a long-term investment in neighborhood relationships, and property?
*  What happens when an investor pays well over the median cost of a home, in anticipation of student-level rents (at least $3500/month for a five bedroom), and then students bypass those houses for another developer’s newer, flashier development?
*  What happens to empty, deteriorating homes, left behind by students seeking the latest luxury living, in what were once neighborhoods buzzing with children, their parents chatting on front stoops or sweeping the sidewalk?
*  What happens to the security and safety of a neighborhood that was once filled with eyes on the street and people on the sidewalks, with homes well-tended and maintained?
*  What happens to the family who can afford less than a third of that student-level rent, yet needs a home?
*  What happens to the reputation of local colleges and universities when nearby neighborhoods deteriorate?
*  What happens to our city when our neighborhoods fail?
*  What would happen if all this occurred in YOUR neighborhood?

I hope City Council and Lehigh administrators (and DeSales, NCC, and Penn State –why not invite them to the table, since their students live in these “regulated rental” houses, too) are ready to commit publicly to some hard work, RIGHT NOW –not in six or twelve months– WITH (and not just for) local residents,  to assure that “what happens” is not destructive, irreversible, and harmful to families and viable neighborhoods, to the reputation of our local institutions of higher ed, and even to those very students who want places to live off their campuses. We all have a lot to lose.

And I hope there are Bethlehem residents from all parts of the city who will want to join the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development to help with this crisis, even if it is not happening now in your neighborhood. This is bigger than just a few homes, and a few people.

So what’s up now that is so urgent about these big pocket student housing investors?  First, a clarification about one of Stephen Antalics’ comments: Fifth St Properties is, in fact, located in Bethlehem and has a pretty good reputation for keeping up with maintenance and responding to complaints. But Fifth St. Properties recently sold 44 buildings in their portfolio to an out of state real estate group located in NYC, Stonebridge Campus Living; the latter is new to Bethlehem. Their investment in the 44 buildings they acquired from Fifth Street Properties averages out to about $485,000 EACH (real estate investors buy in group lots, so that figure is an average based on the total Stonebridge paid for all 44 buildings). And as folks have heard, the developer who owns the Lehigh Properties GP, LLC is not located in Bethlehem, either. The latter is owned by a young Lehigh alum who wants to demo four of his properties to create a big luxury student housing complex on First Terrace; he paid an average of $240,000 for each of the four homes he wants to demolish (a rather extraordinary sum for Southside homes!), when he acquired the entire portfolio.

So housing prices are going nuts (compare the investor purchases to other recent home purchases by individuals around here!), as developers fail to study the market, and fail to understand Lehigh’s intention to keep the number of off-campus students steady, even as the university’s overall student numbers increase. As Anna Smith, the director of CADCB, noted in her last post, one result of that failure to study the market will probably lead to companies poaching student renters for their newer luxury student rental developments. That constant shift in student housing is a precarious situation for neighborhoods, as financially over-committed investors will want to find ways to maximize their profits. It seems highly unlikely that these investors would want to shift their attention to work on sensitive neighborhood development, or rehab older housing stock to rent it at reasonable prices to families, when they’ve sunk small fortunes into buying up portfolios of high-priced student rentals  . . .

On the Southside we increasingly see student rental signs going up on what were privately-owned homes, indicating ownership by large investment/management groups, which indicate that those rentals are no longer welcoming (or affordable) to families and individuals. But there are still more “regulated student rentals” (see Anna Smith’s recent Gadfly post), which are owned by local individual investors who may have as few as one, or as many as 15 properties. Investors buy in groups, so the latter groups of properties may currently be at particular risk of being swallowed up by those big players with so much money to spend in the local market.

Time to focus, city leaders and Lehigh (and maybe DeSales, Penn State and NCC) administrators! We are at a critical time for the future of the Southside. The Southside Vision Housing Committee is leading the way, and (along with the city’s DCED folks) has the data, but residents need participation and commitment from those other institutional leaders –at the highest levels– to head off a greater housing crisis, and the destruction of viable neighborhoods. And deep pocket investors and developers threaten to drive an even bigger wedge than already exists between Lehigh and its nearby neighbors, and between City of Bethlehem leaders and Southside residents.

We don’t have to let this happen. But we ALL need to work together on the problem now, through zoning, planning, heavily publicizing Lehigh’s actual intentions about student housing through public and private presentations to current and potential investors and landlords, and by recognizing current neighborhoods that are strong, and identifying those which may be faltering. We can support and build strong neighborhoods. We can bring back balance in local development. But we can’t do it if we can’t get folks to work together, and FAST, to demonstrate a genuine — and public — commitment to those goals.

Please contact Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) to join forces with BRRD. Please contact City Council members to say, “we all need you to support viable neighborhoods on the Southside, NOW.”

What would happen if all this were going on in YOUR neighborhood?

Kim

Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development: contact Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) to show solidarity and to get on the mailing list. (THIS IS SO EASY!)

Bethlehem should adopt a waste-minimization policy for events

Peter Crownfield is officially retired but spends most of his time working with students in his role as internship coordinator for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley.

One sad thing about Musikfest is the amount of waste, largely from throwaway plates, cups, & utensils for serving all that food. And, of course, quite a bit of food waste. Musikfest should require vendors to transition to reusable food-service items.

Bethlehem should adopt a waste-minimization policy for events. And, of course, they should have recycling and composting receptacles in the downtown areas as was suggested over 10 years ago.

Peter

Anyone can join for a term or a year is not a “family”

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Gadfly:

As I would expect from Tony, this article makes some really good points. People in non-traditional families or communal living arrangements should not automatically be excluded. However, I think the idea of the article is to allow arrangements that are long-term in nature, not transient ‘anyone can join our group’ arrangements for a term or a year, which is the norm for student housing.

Peter Crownfield

It’s time to move forward with some zoning or code changes to address student housing

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.

Gadfly:

On student housing –

Last year, following a rapid increase in the average sales price of single-family homes in south Bethlehem and an increase in speculative investment in student housing, the Southside Vision Housing Committee worked with a consultant from Philadelphia who is an expert in housing policy to study the student housing and development issue in south Bethlehem. Throughout several months, the committee worked with the consultant to explore best practices for maintaining mixed-income neighborhoods and examined potential changes to ordinances and policies that could effectively address the expansion of student housing in south Bethlehem. The committee included representatives from the City, Lehigh University, local residents, and even a student-housing provider. A final list of five prioritized strategies was provided at the end of the process, and zoning changes emerged as the first priority of many of the residents on the committee.

Since then, City officials have been examining the different codes and ordinances that regulate student housing and development in order to determine what changes will best address the changing nature of our neighborhoods. As many have stated, a single line in an ordinance can make a huge difference; whatever changes are made now need to be well thought out if we expect them to truly make the desired impact: preserve diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods.

Currently, student housing falls under the City’s regulated rental ordinance (see: https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/ordinance/articles/ARTICLE1739.html#01). This is not part of the zoning code, but, rather, the ordinance establishes basic conditions for the occupancy of properties that house 3-5 unrelated individuals on a single lease. There is no limit to the number nor location of these properties; as long as a property owner complies with yearly inspections, registers the property with the City, and provides copies of the lease with all tenant information (among a few other basic requirements), then the property can function as a regulated rental.

Changes in zoning and ordinances could take a number of forms—here are two of the main changes that we explored on the committee:

  1. Alter the regulated rental ordinance to include fewer unrelated occupants. This approach has been used in Allentown near Muhlenberg’s campus, and the logic behind it is that you limit the financial incentive for property owners to rent to students. If you can only make rental income from 2 or 3 students, is it worth converting your property to student housing?

While the creation of the original regulated rental ordinance has been cited by some as the source of the Southside’s student housing issues, I’m not sure that reducing the number of students allowed in each home would help us to achieve our goal. Lehigh has repeatedly confirmed, in public and private conversations, their intentions to maintain a stable off-campus housing population—the number of students needing off-campus housing will remain consistent throughout Lehigh’s expansion, so there is no need for additional student housing. Similarly, Lehigh does not intend to bring any additional students on to campus, so there will be no reduction in the number of students needing off-campus housing. What would happen if we changed our codes to say 2 or 3 students maximum per house? Well, we would need A LOT more student housing off-campus to accommodate those students. Given the Southside’s housing stock (single family homes with 3-5 bedrooms), this sounds to me like an incentive to build giant towers with student apartments close to campus. Is that more desirable? Some might argue yes, but I’m not so sure. We could grandfather in the existing properties, but not sure how that would stand up legally—we would providing a huge economic benefit to existing housing providers while effectively shutting out any new competition.

  1. Create a zoning ordinance that limits the number of regulated rental homes in a particular area. This could be done through minimum distance requirements between homes, or percentages by block or zone. Different zones could have different rules—closer to campus, you could allow up to 100% student housing, while neighborhoods further away could have more restrictions.

While I prefer this option, there are certainly some downsides to consider. How do we draw the lines? How many homeowners will we be giving up on if we allow a neighborhood to be targeted for up to 100% student housing? (I will point out that 100% student housing is currently permissible in any neighborhood, so this wouldn’t be a change from the status quo). However, can we ask the last 4-5 families on lower Montclair to sacrifice what remains of their neighborhood in order to protect upper Carlton? It’s a hard decision to make.

Other things to consider when we talk about changing codes and ordinances:

— What happens to homes that investors have spent $400k+ on if we significantly alter the housing market in south Bethlehem? These purchases were made anticipating revenue from 5 students paying a minimum of $700 per month each. If the investor can’t get the money, will they sell? Leave the property vacant? Rent to families? The future of many Southside neighborhoods could depend on how student-housing providers answer that question. Our fate as a community is wrapped up in the consequences—not just the housing provider’s bottom line.

— Many student-housing investors are purchasing and renovating homes in hopes of stealing students away from other student housing providers. Competition encourages student-housing providers to keep up their homes if they want to stay in the market and charge top dollar. If we remove or significantly reduce competition, will we remove incentives for upkeep?

I’m glad to see that the conversation on Southside neighborhoods is continuing, and thanks to the Gadfly for providing a forum to share these ideas! The more folks involved in researching, proposing, and analyzing policies, the better. It’s clear to me that it is time to move forward with some zoning or code changes to address student housing, and there’s a lot to think about as we design a new policy. I’d encourage anyone interested in getting more involved in the discussion to join us at the Southside Vision Housing Committee—send me an email at asmith@caclv.org and I’ll get you the details!

Anna

Anna always gives us a lot to chew on.

The latest on defining a “family”

(Latest posts on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Big thanks to Tony Hanna!

Copied entire article instead of link because you might need a subscription.

Argues for widening definition of “family” but note the bolded section about  rejecting students as such. Interesting.

Gadfly does not see 5 college students as commited to each other in the way a family should be, nor does he see them as a “functional family.”

The housing plans released by the Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren rightly recognize that only bold federal intervention can fix a problem as entrenched as housing segregation. But by offering towns financial incentives to change their zoning codes — the most powerful force dictating where and how people live — and little else, the plans miss the mark.

In many communities, zoning codes prohibit apartments, require people to live on large lots or set minimum square footages for dwellings. These rules have the effect of excluding low-income people, regardless of the intent of the people who wrote the laws.

But wealthy towns with the most exclusive rules do not need the money. Mr. Castro has offered a second idea, suggesting a commission to establish national guidelines for zoning. Guidelines, though, are just advisory. They will not actually force a change.

Instead, their plans should target one of the most significant, insidious and legally vulnerable barriers to flexible and inclusive zoning codes: the definition of “family.”

Almost every zoning code across the country defines “family” in a traditional way: people who are legally related by blood, marriage or adoption. Sometimes, the definition allows a small number of unrelated people (say, two or three), who are functioning as a “housekeeping unit” to be considered a family.

Such definitions exclude people just as committed to each other as members of “traditional” families, but who don’t satisfy legal conditions. These “families of choice” consist of unrelated adults who decide to share finances, child-rearing responsibilities, home repairs, chores and meals. They include groups of single moms, households that have merged and older adults forging new lives together after the deaths of their spouses.

The definition of family matters because zoning codes typically have a “one family per housing unit” policy. These policies are most strictly enforced in the neighborhoods with single-unit detached homes — 64 percent of neighborhoods, according to the 2013 American Housing Survey. It’s in these communities where housing affordability tends to be low, and racial segregation high.

Some cities, like Minneapolis, have started making plans to reduce or eliminate the amount of land devoted to single-unit zoning. But other cities, like Plano, Tex. — where more than 4,000 residents have mobilized to overturn similar plans — have taken steps backward. The amount of land devoted to single-unit, detached dwellings is not likely to change greatly in the places that need it the most. Other aspects of zoning, like lot size controls and minimum square footages, would also be hard to override.

But definitions of family appear to be more ripe for change. Four state supreme courts — California, Michigan, New Jersey and New York — have already struck down zoning ordinances that failed to allow “functional families.” They found that such ordinances violate rights to due process, privacy or both. They also found that communities can still achieve a “residential character” without delving into the specifics of the relationships among residents. And they said that traditional family definitions flunk the “rational basis test” courts use to determine whether a law is constitutional.

These decisions make sense. The 1950s, when nearly 70 percent of children were raised in married-couple, male-breadwinner households, are long gone. (Today, only 22 percent of children have the same arrangement.) Similarly, nonmarital cohabitation and high housing prices have resulted in an unprecedented fluidity of family structure and living arrangements.

Moreover, there is no evidence that a traditional family and a true functional family differ in land-use effects. The fact that zoning codes allow an unlimited number of related people to live together (while limiting unrelated people) is not rational, either.

Justice Thurgood Marshall raised this point in his dissent in a 1974 case, Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, when he said that the definition of family being upheld by the court would allow a family of 12 in a small bungalow, but that “three elderly and retired persons could not occupy the large manor house next door.” In other words, the communal living arrangement in “The Golden Girls” would be a zoning violation. (Dorothy and Sophia were related, but Blanche and Rose were not.)

Four state courts are not 50 state courts, and federal courts have not definitively ruled on the matter. The Belle Terre case upheld a definition of family that excluded a group of six college students from living together, but that group of college students was not a functional family. A 1977 Supreme Court case, Moore v. City of East Cleveland, struck down a zoning code that prohibited a grandmother and her grandsons from living together in their home. But that decision applied only to “related” people in traditional relationships.

Presidential candidates should loosen these restrictive definitions. They could propose thoughtful federal statutes that articulate how local governments can regulate the family. There’s precedent for that: The Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act overrode local controls to improve access to wrongfully closed-off places. Candidates could also commit to appoint judges who understand this issue and take a broad view of family structure.

Championing this issue would promote progressive ideals. And it could unite both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives may come to realize that limited definitions of family erode property rights and freedom of association in the home.

As a zoning official, I’m usually the last person to advocate for federal intrusion into local decision-making. But the problems of housing inequality and segregation are too big for localities to tackle piecemeal. Every presidential candidate should incorporate into their housing plans a definition of family that better reflects how we choose to live today.

That simple line is destroying our Southside!

(Latest posts on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Olga Negron is a Bethlehem City Councilwoman.

I agree with your suggestion Gadfly. The line: “up to 5 unrelated individuals who maintain a common household with common cooking facilities and certain rooms in common” was added to allow student rentals, and it’s what both Gadfly Antalics and I have been talking about. That simple line is destroying our Southside! Yes, I agree we should “unmake” and delete that line, that might be the only way to save our community.

Olga