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Student neighbors in Duluth
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The East Hillside and other neighborhoods near UMD are seeing more and more houses turned into rentals for students. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
Duluth is home to three growing colleges and universities. More than 10,000 students move to the city every year. And less than half of them live on campus. The rest crowd into residential neighborhoods across the city. That's made for some bad feelings. The traditional "town and gown" friction is more complicated than usual in Duluth.

Duluth, Minn. — Duluth's East Hillside is a neighborhood of three-bedroom homes, garages in the alley, and carefully tended yards.

Over the Labor Day weekend, some new neighbors moved in.

Travis Kokal and his friends graduated together from Eveleth-Gilbert high school. Kokal spent two years at a community college, and now he's studying accounting at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Kokal says it was tough to find a decent place to live.

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Image Travis Kokal and roommates.

"We looked at about a dozen places; most of them were complete dives, with broken windows," he says. "This was the only place that looked suitable to live in, that's still affordable."

The four young men will split the $1400 monthly rent.

Kokal says he thought about living in a dorm at UMD - for about two seconds.

"I'm not a big fan of wild parties and all that stuff," he says. "Here I've got a basement bedroom where it's quiet."

The neighbors are hoping it stays quiet.

Susan Olson lives next door with her husband and two young children. She and Bill Cary, who lives across the street, remember last year's group of renters.

"I would say 90 percent of the time they were wonderful neighbors," Olson says.

"But the raging arguments at three in the morning from the deck got a little bit hard to deal with sometimes," adds Cary.

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Image Susan Olson and her family.

Susan Olson says someone from out of town bought the house next door last year and turned it into a student rental. As she watches the new students moving in, she says they seem like nice kids. But she says life is different with students on the block.

"As of yesterday there was an empty refrigerator in the front yard," she says. "And none of the beer bottles were in the refrigerator, they were just all over the yard!"

Olson says with students next door, it seems like there's twice as many cars on the block as there used to be. That makes her nervous about letting her kids play in the street. And she worries about the value of her property.

Olson and Cary and some of the other neighbors make a point of getting acquainted with the students as they move in. That way it's easier to deal with problems as they come up.

"Just go to the kids and tell them, 'It's 9:00 at night, you've been partying since 4:00 this afternoon, we've got kids to get to bed, we've got things we have to do, it's time to move on or call it quits.' And for the most part they're responsive."

A new organization of residents and students gives that personal approach high marks. Amanda Alexander helped form Campus Neighbors last year. Alexander suffered through lots of loud parties and people setting off firecrackers in her neighborhood. She visited with her neighbors to talk about what they could do to reclaim their peace and quiet.

"I went door-to-door and I found out that some of them were scared to death," she says. "And some were very angry."

"Some of them were scared to death, and some were very angry."
- Amanda Alexander

In its first year, the group has pushed for tougher city laws about parking in front yards, and higher fines for public nuisance convictions.

But they've also reached out to students, organizing a series of block parties to bring students together with their new neighbors.

Alexander says the influx of students is making it harder for families in Duluth to buy or rent homes. She says the colleges should do more to provide housing for their students.

"Colleges look at it as a business," she says. "But what they need to realize is you're dealing with human beings. And people have to have a place to live. And, yes, they need to either take responsibility and build more housing, or stop the enrollment."

The College of St. Scholastica just opened an apartment building with 100 beds. Last year, UMD built an apartment for 250 students on campus. UMD's Greg Fox says now there's room on campus for all the first-year students, and for nearly all of the older students who want to live in campus housing.

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Image Greg Fox

"Part of the way we measure that is what kind of waiting list do we have, do we have students staying at hotels and so forth," Fox says. "And the answer is no. We don't see the kind of demand for on-campus housing that would justify making a seven or eight or nine million dollar investment in more housing on campus."

UMD gives a brochure to all the students who live off campus. It gives tips on how to be a responsible neighbor. And when school ends in the spring, UMD pays to have a hauler pick up the furniture some students leave out on the lawn.

Fox says it's true that some neighborhoods close to UMD are changing. Some people are selling their homes to absentee landlords who rent to students. Some of those landlords are parents of students from out of town. They can rent to other students, and make money instead of spending it, on their child's room and board.

The median price of a home in Duluth is just over $100,000. That sounds like an affordable investment to more and more parents from the Twin Cities area. But it's beyond the reach of a lot of Duluth residents. The median family income here is about $50,000.

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Image Donny Ness

Donny Ness graduated from UMD six years ago. Now he's on the Duluth City Council. He says what makes the "town and gown" conflict worse in Duluth is that the city's biggest school - UMD - is surrounded by traditional family neighborhoods. There isn't even a commercial strip catering to students that would help define a boundary between family homes and student rentals.

"That's not to say we couldn't create student districts away from campus and then encourage some sort of mass transportation to campus," Ness says.

But the last time a developer proposed to build student apartments, neighbors fought against it and the city council sided with the neighbors.

Donny Ness says the council should gather up its courage and approve some rental housing projects. He says if students have places to live, housing will be more affordable and the city's family neighborhoods will survive.

"We will see the lessening pressure on our traditional neighborhoods and we will see more opportunity for young families to move into home ownership," he says. "There's all sorts of benefits that may not be immediately obvious but will be in the long term better for Duluth."

Meanwhile, students and neighbors will try to get along. This Sunday, the Campus Neighbors group has organized 20 block parties all over the city to help everyone get to know each other.

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