Wissahickon civic group plans to target college “hot houses”

Last night, over a dozen members and guests of the Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association convened to discuss several items of concern to their community.

The meeting, held in the boardroom of the Northern Home for Children on Ridge Avenue, was called to order by WICA Vice President Charles Roller – known to his peers as “Chip.”

Foremost on the minds of residents were the realities of living in an “Educational Housing District.”

The term refers to areas within The Fourth Councilmanic District of Philadelphia that are host to numerous college students from Saint Joseph’s, Philadelphia University, the Philadelphia College of Medicine, and other institutions of higher education.

Morgan Cephas, Deputy Chief of Staff for 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., was present to speak with Wissahickon residents about what she termed as being the “overrun of students.”

“In the 4th district, we have lots of undergraduate students,” said Cephas, adding, “It’s pretty much a hot spot.”

Noting the significant impact this was having on the quality of life in neighborhoods adjacent to Saint Joseph’s University, and the attendant discomfort to the permanent residents of Wynnefield and Overbrook Farms, Cephas stated that Councilman Jones conceived a new stratagem to combat these ills.

Holding absentee landlords accountable 

It’s called the College Student Task Force.

In its second year, the CSTF is a collaboration of civic associations, representatives from city government and License and Inspections, and university administrators working together in what Cephas called “a collective effort” to ease town-and-gown relations.

In this plan, each civic association identifies 8 to 10 “Hot Houses” – residences that have a high density of student renters engaging in poor behavior.

On “Hot Days” – days of the year, such as Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, marked by an upswing in partying – “Strike Forces” consisting of law enforcement and university personnel will target homes identified as being “hot” to issue citations and, if necessary, make arrests.

“It took a while,” said Cephas in regard to the plan’s implementation, “but we’re in the second year, and it’s starting to make an impact.”

When asked by a Wissahickon resident about penalties for being the proprietor of a “Hot House,” Cephas said that property owners found in violation of the law could forfeit their rental licenses for 3 years or receive jail time.

“It gives us leverage to force them to the table,” said Cephas, in reference to absentee landlords.

At present, the College Student Task Force only exists in areas adjacent to Saint Joseph’s University.

Plans are on the table at present to create a similar group in East Falls, Roxborough/Wissahickon, and Manayunk.

Representatives from Northwest Philadelphia civic associations, along with L&I employees and 5th and 39th Police District personnel, will meet next week at City Hall to discuss the structuring of a CSTF.

“We’re going to try to roll out the strike force next semester,” said Cephas.

Roller was quick to emphasize the collaborative nature of the plan.

“We’re not anti-student,” he said. “We’re just protecting the environment.”

Addressing high rental rates 

To protect the delicate environmental balance of Wissahickon, Roller and others are looking closely at what they see as increasing rates of rentals in the area.

“We’re at a tipping point of rentals in this neighborhood – over 50 percent,” said David Decca.

Decca is a Northwest Philadelphia resident and owner of “Orbit,” a fine art gallery on Main Street in Manayunk. He is concerned about the possibility of his neighborhood becoming a “failed neighborhood” as a result of high rental rates, as well as it acting as a “de facto plan B” for Saint Joseph’s University’s housing needs.

“They look at this neighborhood as a place to party,” said Decca.

To combat this atmosphere in which residents have no stake in the community, Roller proposed a moratorium on new rentals.

He noted that while Wissahickon has seen an influx of new families – many drawn by the reputation of the Cook-Wissahickon School – Manayunk has lost three Catholic schools.

“People are moving out,” said Roller, in reference to the situation in Manayunk. “It’s not a place for families.”

He further noted that with problematic rentals come losses in income tax revenues, higher car insurance rates, and, of significant importance to Roller – reduced congressional representation through lowered voter registration.

“We’re losing clout,” he said.

The next meeting will be held on Nov. 9th at the Northern Home for Children.

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