Mero Moment: Split Personalities in College Towns

Most of Utah’s populated cities are built around a major college or university. St. George has Dixie. Cedar City has SUU. Logan has Utah State. Ogden has Weber State. Of course, Provo has BYU and even Salt Lake City has the University of Utah. I don’t think there’s any denying that huge chunks of the local economies of these cities revolve around those schools. If for no other reason than those schools give employment to “respectable” citizens and more or less “free” money to young adults, those schools play an increasingly important part in those economies.

That said, the war between private student housing and residential neighborhoods might be even more rancorous than the eternal hatred between rival schools like BYU and the U. or even Mormons versus non-Mormons. And I find this debate absolutely fascinating – fascinating in the split personalities in these communities where neighborhoods are at once fiercely loyal to their schools and completely appalled that students live in their neighborhoods and that other neighbors rent their homes to them.

The Salt Lake City Council is weighing two proposed ordinances that deal with what used to be called “mother-in-law” apartments but which really serve as student rentals in college towns.

In one corner are reasonable people who understand that these in-home rental units not only add income in hard times and add density to urban residential neighborhoods around these schools – not to overlook that, in true cases of mother-in-law apartments, these rentals allow families to provide intergenerational care for elderly parents. In the other corner are community activists who think people generally are a blight and certainly wish they’d live somewhere else. This latter group runs in packs that go by names like Greater Avenues Community Council. We used to call them busybodies or snobs who can’t seem to mind their own business.

Whether it’s people who have bought oceanfront property and now don’t want anyone else to move in near them, or people who move into “historic” neighborhoods and now think historic means exclusive, these concerned citizens need an attitude adjustment.

In the case of college towns, there’s a reality: Students need housing, and not all students can or want to live on campus. People who at once benefit economically from a university in their midst and then turn around and complain about the people and the noise and the traffic and the cars parked on the streets are simply duplicitous.

My daughter and her husband purchased a home in Provo, near BYU’s Cougar Stadium, several years ago. Before they finally sold it – in part out of frustration with housing ordinances – they endured a neighbor who, evidently, had the city housing code memorized and called the police on them with every perceived housing violation. Their chief violation was that they rented their downstairs to young couples attending BYU and the neighbor could tell because there were always four cars at the house. And, believe it or not, on that one street – that one street in that neighborhood – renting part of your home to a non-family member was against the law. That’s just insane.

It’s time residents in these college towns pick a team. You’re either part of the college community or you’re not. Think of what your town would be like without that college. Think about what Logan, Cedar City and St. George would be like without their universities. Even Provo would be a second-rate town without BYU. Although I have to admit I often dream of Salt Lake City without all of the radicals at the U. But the fact is each of these towns would be nothing without those schools, and those schools would be worthless without all of those students who need places to live. So why bite the hand that feeds you?

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.