by John DomenBy John Domen

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (WNEW) — One county councilman calls it the third rail of politics in Prince George’s County, while admitting that it’s an issue that needs to be looked at beyond just College Park.

The issue is rental housing.

County Councilman Eric Olson, a College Park resident, is pushing a bill that would start to reduce the number of single family homes that are available for University of Maryland students to rent.

Olson tells WNEW it’s about making sure there’s “balance in our neighborhoods between rental and owner occupied.”

State lawmakers representing College Park back Olson’s efforts, noting that between 2005 and 2011 there was a 35 percent jump in rental occupancy permits. More than 10 percent of homes in College Park have been converted to rentals in the past decade, according to backers.

Olson is hoping the proposal would increase the number of university faculty living in College Park. As of now, just 4 percent of UMD workers actually reside there.

Support for Olson’s proposal is far from unanimous.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker opposes the bill, citing the potential for unintended harmful consequences to the rights of property owners.

Baker’s office points to a preexisting law that permits the county to revoke rental licenses for violations of the county code.

Baker’s office said in a statement issued to WNEW that “contrary to the sponsor’s intent, prohibiting a homeowner in this situation from renting their home could lead to the unintended consequences of further destabilizing a community if the lack of a rental option leads to foreclosure or vacancy.”

Testimony at a recent hearing regarding the proposed bill was divided more along property rights and values.

James Mullens owns two homes next door to each other. One he rents out, the other he lives in. Under the bill, he’ll be able to continue to rent out the home already housing students.

“But the house I live in, if I should decide to retire and move away, I’ll have to sell,” Mullens explained. “I won’t be able to keep it as a rental property… So, it’s a direct relationship on the building of my wealth and wealth management.”

Chad Stern, who lives in the Berwyn neighborhood, agrees with Mullens.

“I think it’ll impair the value of my home and also restrict my options,” said Stern. “It reduces the market of buyers for a given property.”

But Cathy Bryant, who says her great-grandfather helped found the city of College Park, and whose family has lived in her home going back to the 1880s, argued in favor of the bill.

During her testimony before members of the council, Bryant recounted the numerous incidents of vandalism that have occurred after she complained about the behavior of students living next door to her. She cited problems that go beyond noise, including litter and public urination.

“People move out because they can’t live with it,” said Bryant. “I can’t tell you how many single families have told me when they move out the reason they’re moving out is because of the loud parties from the student rentals.”

Under the measure, so-called “overlay zones” would be created in neighborhoods within two miles of any college campus. If city officials enacted them, it would prohibit new buyers from buying homes and then renting them out, unless no other home within 400 feet of it was being used as a rental. Originally, Olson wanted an 800-foot buffer.

For students, the worry is that this will drive up the market of available rentals at a time when more housing is needed. Student Government Association President Patrick Gronk says in the years to come the school hopes to have more freshmen and sophomores living on campus, while pushing more upperclassmen off campus.

“It’s going to create a huge demand with no market for it, which is going to drive up prices and put a lot of students out to dry,” says Gronk. “There’s a lot of really great new housing, but it’s just $800, $900, $1,000 a month. It’s not affordable.”

He adds the houses occupied by students in neighborhoods like Old Town College Park and Berwyn offer better value with monthly rent between $400 and $600.

And with it comes the bad behavior Bryant and others have cited.

“It doesn’t mean all the behavior is acceptable,” Gronk said. “We definitely have to work on making sure students aren’t vandalizing property and really causing harm to residents, but also kind of having that understanding with residents that you do live in a college town.”

Mullens, who calls himself a radical liberal, sees other problems with the bill that extend beyond unruly behavior and property values.

“I believe this is really a bill which is going to discriminate against people of color, brown people, immigrants, in addition to youth,” he said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, which concluded without action being taken, Councilman Wil Campos acknowledged rental issues exist and need to be addressed in other parts of the county like Langley Park, as well.

It’s possible the bill will be further amended before any votes are taken.

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