The Heights of Fear
UB takes hands-off attitude in South Campus neighborhood, students suffer consequences
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 00:02
Neighbors, too, praise the program and Ryan says it is viewed as a model by other colleges.
But – as Brace points out – Ryan is just one man and he can only do so much. And what he has, Brace says, is “a job for Jesus.”
Even Ryan admits the results are ambiguous.
“What we’re finding is that when we’ve gone back to these places, for the most part, improvements have been made,” Ryan said at a University Heights Collaborative meeting on Feb. 12. “Having said that, we’re also finding some where they haven’t vacated the premises or where they haven’t repaired the electrical.”
Professor Henry Taylor, the director of UB’s Center for Urban Studies, which is located on South Campus, thinks the Heights’ problem is larger than just Ryan’s office can handle.
Taylor has worked for UB as a neighborhood and community developer since 1987. He ranks UB’s efforts in the Heights as a “one out of 10” in university involvement.
Taylor insists UB needs to do more than just enforce housing codes in order to better the Heights. He said the university must invest in the Heights’ housing stock and businesses, like the University of Pennsylvania did to help develop its adjacent Philadelphia neighborhood.
“[UB] never really developed the type of innovative programs that it should have and could have in order to change conditions inside of the neighborhoods and community,” Taylor said. “It never made that commitment. And so, as a result of that, as we predicted a long time ago, the problems continued to get worse.”
What have other universities done to remedy housing violations?
Canisius, about a 10-minute drive from South Campus, has similar off-campus housing issues as UB, but was worried enough about its students to take action and purchase homes. Over 17 years ago, the college bought about 21 off-campus houses to rent to students. It stopped buying and renting houses eight years ago to focus on new residence halls on campus.
To make up for that, Associate Director of Residence Life Al Pilato periodically meets with and frequently communicates with about 25 landlords who own homes around campus. He works with the landlords to make sure both students and the neighborhood are being taken care of properly. When a student has a problem with a landlord or vice versa, Pilato contacts the person directly.
“It used to be closer like to what you know at UB,” Pilato said. “The quality of life in the neighborhood was actually poor. Garbage everywhere, lack of courtesy, but it’s really changed quite a bit. The behavior issues we have that involve the police have dropped dramatically just because of this involvement with the landlords.”
The University of Pennsylvania, which similarly had the troubled area of West Philadelphia along its borders, has partnered with three businesses since the mid-1990s to invest in 1,350 units in multi-family houses in University City, its off-campus neighborhood where roughly 10,000 students live, said Ed Datz, real estate and operations director at UPenn. The university also invested in the neighborhood’s retail, grocery and hotel space.
UPenn has spent approximately $185.7 million, he said.
UB has spent about $150,000 in the Heights, according to UB Spokesman John Della Contrada. That’s 0.08 percent of what UPenn has spent.
The UB money went for: security cameras, Operation Student Safety, increased UB police patrols on peak weekends like Halloween, Operation Doorhanger (a community safety program in which UB students distribute “doorhangers” printed with safety reminders and tips on how to be a good neighbor) and Student Safety Fairs, Della Contrada said.
At UPenn, the administration’s goal was to buy houses and make them clean, safe and well serviced so students would have decent places to live, according to Datz. The effect, he said, spread throughout the neighborhood.
“Penn’s example brought in other landlord investors who have developed multi-family properties and offer improved housing options to students and others who live in West Philadelphia,” Datz said. “Street vibrancy in the neighborhood has increased due to a variety of retail options that did not exist in the past, and these, along with public safety enhancements, have improved the overall safety in University City.”
Taylor is waiting for UB to make that commitment.
“University of Pennsylvania spent money with the businesses of the neighborhoods, bought properties and developed them into apartments, worked with the police to make it a safer neighborhood and community,” Taylor said. “So they worked on multiple fronts, not just on one front. And they played a leadership role. They didn’t just sit back and tell the community what to do.”
What will the future look like with UB’s current efforts?
SBI general service manager Lorenzo Guzman sits in his office, looking at the list of 71 Heights homes in the beginning of the spring semester that are up for rent on UB’s student-run housing office website. Of them, only one has a certificate of occupancy, which outlines the building’s proper use and proves it is habitable. Ryan has asked SBI not to list properties that don’t have certificates. If Guzman abided by this request, he explains, he would have almost no listings in the Heights.
In four years, one landlord has provided Guzman with a certificate of occupancy.
Guzman says there is one landlord named Wang who is so bad, Sub Board will no longer list his homes.
Yet, as Guzman is talking to a Spectrum reporter, Wang’s name appears on the list under an alias, a tactic he often uses, Guzman said.
Guzman takes him off the list but can’t guarantee he won’t try again or that a student might see Wang’s property before Sub Board removes it.