Bluelining Penn State's Graduate Employees: Ph.D. Students Speak Out Against Discriminatory Zoning Regulations

05/09/2016 02:02 pm ET Updated May 10, 2017

Penn State and the wider State College community bleeds blue for football, THON, undergraduate education, almost everything university-related - except its graduate workers. Graduate students are the backbone of our communities yet our concerns are sidelined, and our access to housing bluelined. Similar to redlining, fair and equal access to housing is denied to Penn State doctoral students based on arbitrary categorizations and irrational, ageist fears about changes to our State College neighborhoods. Through discriminatory zoning codes, the State College Borough Planning Commission privileges 21% of State College long-term residents, ignoring the housing needs of Ph.D. students despite the fact that we make State College our home for an average of five years while completing our degrees. This impacts approximately 7,000 members of our community.

Penn State graduate students live two paradoxes. One: We are tax-paying citizens, working for and with the community. Yet, the State College Borough Planning Commission does not consider us members of the community. Commissioners do not want us as neighbors. Two: We are educators and researchers but are not recognized as employees of Penn State. Our categorization as 'students' justifies these exclusions. We are expected to be good citizens by contributing to our intellectual and State College communities, while we are simultaneously denied recognition as working professionals by Penn State and the Borough.

State College zoning regulations categorize Ph.D. students under a blanket 'student' category, a misnomer with significant consequences. The Student Home Zoning Regulations limits the ability of two or more unrelated individuals to live in the same property unless it is in a designated "student housing" zone, disproportionately impacting graduate students. With the median gross rent $908 monthly, most rental properties are unaffordable for Ph.D. students without partners or roommates. The average yearly graduate stipend is $18,500, while the living wage in State College is $22,464 yearly. We cannot afford to pay 58% of our monthly income for housing.

During the May 4th State College Borough Planning Commission meeting, Commission members doubled down on exclusionary zoning codes. Despite significant dissent from graduate students who identify as working professionals, Commission members argued against a proposal that would exempt doctoral students from the Student Home Zoning Regulations. Slinking away from their responsibility to vote on the proposed zoning amendments, Commission members instead took 'no action at this time,' deciding to revisit this issue during its comprehensive update to zoning codes. This process will take three to five years - more than enough time to wait out supporters of the amendment.

The two-hour debate among Commission members centered on ageist rhetoric. Attendees expressed fears that opening up their coveted neighborhoods to graduate students will lead to State College "resident" flight. Through the label 'student,' the needs and lifestyles of Ph.D. students are conflated with an 18-22 year-old population. Not only is it problematic to assume similar characteristics among a diverse 7,000 graduate student population - much less caricature 43,000 undergraduate students at University Park! - but these exclusionary policies parallel a redlining logic. Just swap out 'student' with another identity category and this visibly becomes a social justice issue. These misleading claims willfully ignore the rich diversity of Penn State students, not only in terms of age, but also disposition and position in life.

Given the propensity of Commission members to unilaterally and incorrectly characterize a heterogeneous 7,000 graduate student population, it's critical to point out that - with the exception of one member - all members in attendance were older, white State College residents who are disconnected from the vulnerable populations most effected by their policies. Those of us representing the views of graduate students were largely patronized as concerned citizens. I was repeatedly referred to as 'young' lady following my public comments, a first since high school.

This narrative of students flooding neighborhoods and driving out long-term residents is disingenuous. With 79% of State College properties renter occupied, the Borough is concerned that increasing rental units will drive down property values. The Commission has used landlords' testimonies to further their case, the very people who benefit from gauging students through unreasonably high rents of often substandard housing. Residents with property are privileged while the rest of us are arbitrarily excluded from good neighborhoods and quality housing.

During the May 4th meeting, Commission members sidelined the discussion of discrimination by attempting to pit graduate students against low wage workers by suggesting that equal access to housing will displace the working class. This faulty reasoning distorts the reality that graduate students' economic realities are akin to young professions in State College.

Ph.D. students are not a transient population. On average, our stay in State College is longer than populations with similar workloads and responsibilities, such as postdoctoral scholars and non-tenured professors. We work diligently to bolster local community through service, and Penn State's brand of academic rigor through research and teaching. Through discriminatory policies and hostile practices exhibited at the May 4th meeting, graduate students are disempowered. We are silenced in decision-making processes that create policies dictating our work and living environments through the categorization of 'student' that obscures our labor and service.

To the State College Borough Planning Commission: As elected representatives, it is your responsibility to ensure that the needs of all community members are taken into account. This includes fair and equal access to quality housing, and protection against unjust discrimination. It is unacceptable that you have refused to take action in the face of substantive critiques of your zoning regulations. Take a stand against exclusionary practices - vote to approve the "Proposal to Exempt Persons Enrolled in Doctoral Programs from the Borough Student Home Zoning Regulations." Better yet, repeal all ordinances that discriminate against any group of people who make State College their home. There are many ways to maintain and strengthen our wonderful State College community that does not resort to exclusionary practices. As a start, try fostering a welcoming environment by inviting students of all stripes to your meetings so that we can collectively plan together, as an inclusive community.