“It needs to be understood that there is not an ‘us vs. them’ mentality here.” These were
the words from one of the many concerned community members pleading their case to a
decidedly divided crowd in the auditorium of Rush-Henrietta Senior High School on the night
of Wednesday, November 2. The meeting was held to discuss the proposal of redefining the
word “family” in the Henrietta town code. The redefinition was proposed to limit the number
of non-related renters, particularly RIT students, that could lease a home in the residential
communities along East River Road — an area known as “The Preserve.” Complaints of crude
behavior, loud parties, drunk driving and illegally parked cars spurred angry or dissatisfied
home owners to ask that the number of non-related renters to be limited to three per household, in a move that they believe should control the problems with students.
|RIT Student Government President Greg Pollock voices his thoughts on behalf of the RIT student body Wednesday evening, November 1, in a town hall
meeting at Rush-Henrietta Senior High School.
The town code already limits the number of unrelated people that can
live in a single family home to four, but the current definition of what
does and doesn’t constitute a “family” makes the law hard to enforce,
and is considered by some legal advisors to be unconstitutional.
According to attorneys, changing the definition would allow it to be
used in court, and would mimic a similar ruling in Brockport that
says unrelated people in single-family homes must be “the functional
equivalent of a single family.” This includes accounting for the group’s
permanency and stability, how they divide up monthly expenses,
whether they’ve lived together for more than a year and whether they
share ownership of appliances and furniture.
“I want to see how much RIT can actually affect policy in this town,”
said third year Chemical Engineering major and WITR general
manager Andy Watson, “That’s what I’m here for.” Watson was one of
the first RIT students to take a seat in the auditorium, alongside third
year Mechanical Engineering major Zoe Rabinowitz. Rabinowitz lives
in Chili, where a similar law is in effect. “I can see where both sides
are coming from, but I tend to lean more toward the student side,”
Shawn Drake has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, and looks
at the situation from a slightly different perspective. “[The proposal]
will keep landlords from taking advantage of students by having them
violate the law when they sign a lease.” Drake was referring specifically
to landlord Michael Spaan, who residents consistently vilified over the
course of the evening. Spaan, who built or bought 22 of the houses
in the Preserve, has allegedly allowed upwards of six people to rent
houses that are legally limited to four tenants.
The first student to speak at the meeting was Alex Ship, a Mechanical
Engineering graduate student, who raised the question of the law’s
enforceability, and how it would actually affect the problems with
students. He suggested that the community should “tackle the behavior”
of individual rowdy students, not the student population as a whole.
Several students complained of having been unfairly targeted and
having had the police called on them unnecessarily. One student had the
sheriff called to his residence, even though he was home alone. Another
student complained of having the police driving by and shining lights
into his living room because there were five cars in his driveway — the
student had friends over watching a movie. One woman came to the
students’ defense, saying, “There are a lot of people complaining about
RIT students, but I’ve had some nasty neighbors as well.”
Several residents claimed that their mailboxes and lawns have been
mangled by people racing through the neighborhood. One homeowner
even discovered two young people having sex in a car in front of her
house, in plain view of anyone inside the home. Though the police were
called, neither student was issued a citation.
Allegedly, the police couldn’t prove any of these infractions, or didn’t
have the manpower to take additional action. Another man asked why
RIT didn’t build more affordable student housing on the land it owns,
an inquiry that drew scattered applause and murmurs of agreement
from the audience.
|Residents of Henrietta and RIT students, faculty and staff voice their opinions at the November 2 town hall meeting.
The most outraged citizen was 70-year-old Regina Lapp-Harmon, a
five year resident of the Preserve. She went straight for the students
and the Board for their respective actions and inactions on the matter.
Her experiences included people racing through stop signs and a
bullet allegedly being fired into her home. She ended her heated speech
on the definition of family, saying: “Why don’t you look in the Bible
and see what God says.”
Michael Spann’s attorney claimed that his client had never
knowingly rented a house to more than four students, even though a
news interview with several students earlier that month contradicted
him. Spaan was labeled as the root of the problem by many. “If 22
rental properties sprung up in [the Town Board’s] neighborhood,
this problem would [never have] even made it this far,” one angry
homeowner charged. Another recalled a phone conversation with
Spaan: “I called him a few names and he called me a lot of names.”
As the night progressed, a more moderate temperament seemed to
develop. “I think you’re dealing with two separate issues, and somehow
they got all tangled up,” one resident said. Several people claimed that
they had no intention of speaking up that night, but the dialog had
stirred them to speak their piece. “This whole community is thinking
very narrowly,” one person voiced. Many felt that the issue was more
complex than residents were considering and that the law would do
more harm than good.
Meredith Smith is the director of State and Local Government
Relations at RIT, and works with the Off-Campus Student Housing
Initiative Coalition to handle off-campus conduct issues. “I think that
the task force is a significant opportunity to address the issues and do
comprehensive work,” she stated.
In spite of the many points made, the correlation between the number
of students living in a house and the amount of problems coming from
said house was never addressed. Whether or not neighbors actually
took the time to go over to students’ homes and address the problems
face-to-face was never mentioned either.
As of press time, no time or date had been set for another hearing or a vote.