A Retroactive Rebuke of Lower Merion and Radnor, PA Townships
It might seem a tad out of place for a platform centered on Westchester County, NY to even mention municipalities in another state. However, a question about landlord-tenant issues in another forum, and perhaps the early hour of this writing (5:48am, although this won’t be published until later today) have wiped away a few cobwebs and caused me to relive an old pain.
Often, when one becomes an adult and responsible member of society with a family, a business and civic responsibilities, they shed the discontents of their youth. For example, the year I turned 18, the state of New York raised the drinking age to 19. When I turned 19, it was raised to 21. I was incensed about this at the time. I hardly give it another thought today, and if I read that they were raising the age to 30 tomorrow, I’d pause for a moment, notice something shiny, and then check on last night’s Yankee game box score. I no longer have a horse in that race.
But there are some things that linger.
I turn 45 next month. I run a successful business, have a family and a home, and I am a Vice President of one of New York’s largest Multiple Listing Services today. But at one time I was a pimple faced matriculated student at Villanova University in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania. The record shows that I earned a BA in English in 1989. I was 4 year member of the rowing team, a fraternity brother of Pi Kappa Alpha, a freshman orientation counselor, and overall what you might aptly term “a good kid.” I befriended other like minded “good kids,” and when our junior year arrived, we were summarily bounced from dorm life on campus because the University did not have enough housing for the full student body.
So what’s the big deal? You get an apartment off campus with your buddies and virtually walk to classes anyway, right? Not exactly. Villanova, PA was in the heart of what is known as the Main Line, an affluent row of suburbs on the Paoli Local that is analogous to the Metro North Harlem line that runs through the Westchester County’s sleepy suburban towns. It was not a “college town” like so many schools of higher learning inhabit. Campus was not surrounded by rathskeller dive bars, hoagie shops, apartments and used book stores. We were enveloped by wealthy suburban neighborhoods in Radnor and Lower Merion Townships with mansions walking distance from the quad. As you might imagine, student body and wealthy suburb mixed like oil and water.
The University couldn’t build housing fast enough, and the story was always that Radnor township’s zoning laws prevented the development that was needed. When you have over 2000 students needing housing in and around residential neighborhoods that lack the infrastructure to adequately meet the demand, conflict results. We heard anecdotal stories of drunk students urinating in bushes and other fairly typical incidents which caused tension between the University and the towns. The townships also made things worse by arcane ordinances that prohibited more than two unrelated people living under the same roof. Housing was expensive. Living alone or with one roommate was ridiculously pricey. No matter if you found a 3 bedroom apartment or a 2 bedroom that would easily house and park 3 people. The minute you unpacked you were illegal.
After our first condo didn’t work out toward the end of junior year, my four housemates and I rented a colonial home in nearby Ardmore, Pa a few miles from campus. 5 people living in a good sized house is no big deal, and housing was not cheap. Three of us were engineering majors perpetually buried in books. All of us behaved. It did us no good. Lower Merion’s ordinance prohibited more than three unrelated people in one home, and so early senior year we were awakened by a Lower Merion town official at 5am and the house was searched. We were evicted by the town in a hearing, and had to move for a 3rd time in less than a year. We split up, and 3 of us ended up in what was known as the Brick House, as ramshackle dump that was once an unofficial fraternity house in an alley behind some businesses. It was a far cry from our first condo in Wayne. But it was a roof over our heads and we didn’t want to be evicted again. So we shut up and endured until graduation.
The incredulous feelings, going to sleep not knowing where you were going to live, and the sense that the powers that be had it in for us remain with me still. Villanova could do nothing. They couldn’t build what they needed because the town stood in the way, and yet the town wouldn’t let us live off campus with any dignity either. It was a Catch-22 of enormous proportions, and it would be years until Villanova developed West Campus and provided more housing. I remember standing at the corner of Ithan and Lancaster Avenues watching the locals in their BMWs and Mercedes at the light and wondering what I did to wrong them. I often wondered if the feelings I had at the time would remain when I was an adult with my own home.
They do remain.
Briarcliff Manor is home to one of the campuses of Pace University at what used to be Briarcliff College. There are mansions walking distance from the student union. I own a home in a community that is the socioeconomic clone of Radnor Township. I drive a BMW. I have been quoted in the New York Times and appeared on ABC World News. I have four small children. I am completely on the other side of the social table-in the housing industry at that, and I still feel that Radnor Township and Lower Merion Township were wrong. The lawmakers, town officials and enforcers may all be long gone and there may even be a kinder, gentler leadership in the respective governments now that more students finally live on campus, but I am still angry at how I was treated.
I have never had one problem with a Pace student, perhaps due in large part to the fact that the municipality and university were apparently on the same page about student housing. I have never had a Pace student piss in my bushes because they either live in a dorm or commute from home. Things got managed better here. The story of Danroy Henry, tragic and senseless as it is, could have occurred anywhere and had nothing to do with arcane blue law type housing ordinances.
I don’t know if Lower Merion or Radnor ever changed the laws or reached detente with Villanova once more housing was built on the old Morris Estate (now west campus), but there are hundreds if not thousands of my fellow students who, whether they were evicted or not, lived in some level of fear. Living in fear in these United States. My father won a Bronze Star in Korea after serving with merit in the Second World War, and his son had his rights violated by a vindictive, small minded government that couldn’t get out of its own way and live with a reputable university that has been there since 1842. Were the students and school at fault too? Sure. It wasn’t 100% black and white, but it started with terrible governing.
There were other events I won’t go into, like when my voter registration record conveniently disappeared when I went to vote in 1988 in Lower Merion. When I think about it, it is no coincidence that a huge part of my practice is short sales and serving people facing foreclosure. Nobody should stay awake at night worrying that they might lose their home.
Lower Merion and Radnor may be different today; I don’t know. And there are two sides to every story. But now that I live on what is the other side from being an undergrad, 24 years later at that, I believe that my classmates and I are owed an apology. I am no longer that student standing on the corner of Ithan and Lancaster. I am the homeowner in the car. I am a housing professional of some stature. And if the municipalities still pull this on any students today who may find themselves off campus today, a pox on their houses.