On July 19, Binghamton Mayor Jared Kraham announced a zoning law proposal to curb student housing.
The law would prohibit groups of four or more college students from living in the city’s single-family (R1) and two-family residential (R2) zones, with student housing not in multi-unit residential zones (R3) or commercial zones becoming subject to prosecution starting July 1, 2023. By that same date, existing student housing in R3 zones will need to be reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission. Many students currently live in R1 and R2 zones, which are comprised of large parts of the West Side.
Kraham said the proposal aims to fix the ambiguities of previous zoning laws.
“You can imagine a scenario that’s difficult to enforce that functional family definition,” Kraham said. “If you have six students who shop together, they eat together, they have the same schedule, it’s very difficult for the city to prove that they aren’t functioning as a family under the current law. The new law makes it clear that four or more unrelated college students does not constitute a family unit, and therefore no matter how they act or function, would not be eligible to live in those single-family zones.”
The law will be brought before Binghamton City Council on Monday, Aug. 1, during their work session. If the law secures sponsorship by four council members — or at least two in the committee in which it is filed — and isn’t expedited, the entire council will vote on whether or not to pass it during their business meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 17.
Aviva Friedman, a Binghamton City Council member, said there is a long-standing history of tension between Binghamton residents and student housing developers and landlords — not necessarily students. Friedman said she often hears two concerns from her constituents — being priced out due to rent hikes and dealing with the shifting neighborhood culture created by a “transient” population of student residents.
”I know that [Binghamton University] students are an integral part of our community, and I say this having been a BU student which brought me to Binghamton in the first place,” Friedman said. “But there are certain ways we can coexist and promote student welfare that’s not at the expense of long-term residents who aren’t happy with a lot of the things going on. Those are the two most prominent things I’m considering. I can’t speak for the other council members, but I assume that’s also what’s going on in their mind.”
Not all are in support of the proposal, however. McKenna Bunnell, BA ‘22, a first-year graduate student pursuing a Masters of Art in teaching adolescence education, has lived in both R2 and R3 zones during her time at BU — as have many other students.
Bunnell expressed concern over how the proposed zoning law may exacerbate rent already inflated by the onset of COVID-19.
“I had difficulty finding an apartment under $550 per bedroom on the Westside this year,” Bunnell wrote. “I did not have this issue when searching for an apartment off-campus two years before. This issue will only worsen if this new law is passed as it will reduce the amount of ‘affordable’ — affordable in comparison to luxury apartments like U Club [Binghamton] and 20 Hawley — apartments. It is important to note that this law would greatly impact students with a lower socioeconomic status. If housing options on the Westside are taken away, I can only imagine how the cost of rent for students might rise.”
Alexander Conti, a Ph.D. student in geology and a New York State licensed realtor who owns five local rental properties, detailed his feelings over the effectiveness of current zoning laws.
“While zoning may contribute, in part, to the rise or fall of the City of Binghamton, it is important to focus on the individuals who live here,” Conti wrote in an email. “While advocating for luxury housing (e.g., 50 Front), ubiquitous student housing, or a downtown restaurant may seem grand, it is important to note Binghamton’s median annual income is $34,487. Focusing on housing for residents who live here long-term (e.g., non-students) should be paramount. While this proposed legislation is a step in the correct direction, I must reiterate the elephant in the room—again, why propose new legislation when the current-standing legislation is unenforced?”
Certain R2 zones with existing student housing will also be converted to R3 zones if the proposal is made into law. Arthur O’Sullivan, a junior double-majoring in biological sciences and classical civilization, lives in one of these areas.
O’Sullivan said he sympathizes with the law and its intentions.
“Unfortunately, students are pricing [neighbors and locals] out of decent houses and apartments, renting from slumlords for exorbitant prices — often paid for by student loans,” O’Sullivan wrote. “In places such as my block, where student housing is the majority, there is very little ‘community’ to speak of, as students almost entirely concern themselves with their friend group at the University, leaving the few locals in the area somewhat isolated. Therefore, I sympathize with this law and what it intends to accomplish, though I’m not sure that it will work out as it’s hoped.”
Kraham explained his belief that the bill will improve the housing market for low-income families and students alike, and said the proposal has significant support among residents in the West Side.
“We want [students] to be able to have the off-street parking that they need, the close amenities, maybe more commercial amenities that they need, businesses that are closer to them that you wouldn’t find in order areas of the city,” Kraham said. “To me, [this law] will only strengthen the student housing neighborhoods and incentivize people who are providing student housing to do so in the walkable neighborhoods that are close to commercial areas and close to downtown that we know students want to live in instead of having a sprawl of student-style housing all across the city which isn’t good for the neighborhoods.”
Editor’s Note (7/29/22): A previous version of this article misstated the number of council members required for the law to proceed to a council vote. The law would need to secure sponsorship from four council members, or at least two in the committee in which it is filed. The article has been corrected with the proper information.