Under Michigan State University’s new “sophomores must live on campus” policy, the City of East Lansing suddenly has newfound powers over MSU students living in fraternities or sororities. That in turn may give MSU and year-round residents living near these houses more leverage, too, to deal with behavioral concerns.
According to MSU’s official site for “second year group housing,” for an off-campus house to be approved by MSU for sophomores to live there, it must meet definite requirements, “such as a valid rental license with City of East Lansing, completed fire inspection, proof of liability and property insurance coverage standards, compliance with municipal housing code enforcement, and more.”
East Lansing’s zoning code for years has technically required that these Greek houses obtain a Special Use Permit (SUP) — property-specific permits that enable Michigan municipalities to apply more scrutiny and regulate property uses that are allowed under the zoning code but that might not be suitable in all cases.
But efforts to ensure houses are in compliance with that rule have been patchwork at best. Now, with the new policy, regulation efforts seem to be getting more serious.
When ELi inquired with MSU whether an SUP is being specifically required by MSU for a Greek house to be approved for sophomores to live there, we received the following answer Jan. 28 from Dr. Erin Carter, Interim Director for Fraternity & Sorority Life.
“[T]he program requires a valid City of East Lansing Class VI, Class B Rental License for Group Housing (fraternity, sorority, co-op) OR another valid City of East Lansing Rental License type with a Special Use Permit (SUP) to operate as a Group Housing facility,” Carter wrote. “Only one facility is eligible per MSU affiliated organization.”
The approved places for sophomores to live off-campus in 2022 can also be found at the second year housing webpage. According to that page, 19 Greek houses have already been approved for an exemption to the sophomores-on rule, with 17 more “in review process.” Addresses are not given for the houses listed.
The entire Spartan Housing Cooperative — the organization that governs the various MSU co-op houses — is also listed as “in review process.” At this time, no co-op houses are listed as approved.
With the new MSU policy, East Lansing’s Special Use Permit requirement for Greek houses is seemingly taking on greater importance.
After years of the SUP requirement being largely ignored, there has been a notable uptick in SUP applications from Greek houses of late. (ELi reported on this in December, as did the Lansing State Journal more recently.)
The data bears out just how many houses have been operating without the “required” SUPs. When a list of fraternities and sororities in the City was presented to East Lansing’s Planning Commission at its Dec. 8, 2021, meeting, there were only eight SUPs on file for a total of 65 Greek chapters.
That number is now up to nine, after a recent approval (described below). And, with three more applications outstanding as of the end of January, the number could soon hit 12.
To be granted permission to live in approved off-campus group housing, MSU also requires that an indiviudal sophomore be a recognized member of the organization whose house they are seeking to occupy; be in good standing with MSU (not on academic or conduct probation); and have completed certain required MSU trainings for first-year students, including trainings on sexual assault and relationship violence plus diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The process for an individual student to obtain an exception from the live-on policy takes place in the spring semester and will begin this month.
Sophomores have traditionally been the main occupants of Greek houses.
With MSU’s new policy, the City revoking an SUP or pursuing other code violations could have a large and negative impact on a Greek house. That makes the rental licenses and SUPs a potential cudgel for the City (and MSU) to use — as never before — to promote behavioral compliance.
In the past, the SUPs mattered a lot less in this scene. A fraternity or sorority could effectively live together in group housing without bothering to obtain an SUP. The members could come together as individual tenants to rent out an entire building, slap up a sign with their Greek letters, and the landlord would still be within compliance of housing law so long as the building was in compliance with general rental law and passed the necessary inspections.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg noted this “get out of the SUP requirement” method in one Council discussion of a fraternity in the Bailey neighborhood that had been doing just that — living as a fraternity without an SUP. There was nothing pushing the chapters to be in compliance with an SUP.
But now, because of MSU’s rules about sophomore housing exceptions, the lack of an SUP — or other necessary bureaucratic belt notches — could have serious implications for a fraternity or sorority.
In response to emailed questions from ELi, City Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser wrote the following:
“City Council has the ability to revoke any special use permit, not just those for fraternities and sororities, that do not comply with the standards of review or conditions of approval. Revocation of a special use permit is a last resort and would only be used after providing opportunities for the land use/property owner to achieve compliance with the Code of Ordinances.”
The importance of MSU’s new requirements came into focus at a recent City Council meeting when Mayor Ron Bacon asked property owners about the impetus for a fraternity SUP application.
During a Jan. 11, 2022, public hearing on an SUP application for a fraternity located in a pair of next-door apartment buildings at 312 N. Harrison Rd. and 710 Oak St. — where a fraternity had already been living for several years with no SUP — Bacon asked the property owners, Alan and Rebecca Ross, why they had come now to get the SUP.
Alan Ross responded, indicating that they were ignorant of the City’s SUP requirement when they had first purchased the properties around 2015. Ross said they moved to come into compliance because City law requires it.
But he did also confirm to Council that this SUP was being sought to allow sophomores to live in the buildings according to MSU’s new rules.
“All fraternities are required now, if they want to have second-year students living off campus to provide — to complete certain bureaucracies that allow them to house these students,” Ross said to Council.
Council member Dana Watson asked Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser about the timeline of bringing other fraternities and sororities into compliance with the SUP requirement. Menser answered that there isn’t a legal obligation to go back and retroactively get SUPs for fraternities and sororities that already exist.
“But, as new fraternities establish themselves or as they move from one location to another, they will go through this process,” Menser said. “So, these are, you mentioned — there are three more like this that are coming to Council. Starting with the Planning Commission, delayed a bit with the cancellations [of meetings] this month. But they’ll be coming to you in a very similar manner to this. And the plan moving forward is that any fraternity or sorority would require a new Special Use Permit.”
Gregg added that she had spoken with someone from MSU who said that SUPs are an MSU administrative requirement for sophomores to live off campus.
“I did contact representatives from MSU today to clarify what will be required for the second-year live-on [exemption] and they — as the applicant mentioned, fraternities that are currently just operating as residents in buildings or apartment buildings without a SUP would not qualify for that exemption,” Gregg said.
At this meeting, Council approved the SUP on a 4-1 vote, with Council member George Brookover voting against. If a majority of Council members – three or more – were to elect to vote against SUP approvals – which they could legally do – it could, at least in theory, have a major impact on Greek life in East Lansing.
With the death in November of MSU business student Phat Nguyen in conjunction with a Pi Alpha Phi party in the Bailey neighborhood, more scrutiny is being placed on these houses. Witnesses to that deadly party recounted to State News reporters a sickening scene, and ELPD is investigating possible criminal charges.
Regardless of what happens, the “sophomores live-on” policy does seem to have the potential to really change the town-gown scene, not just economically, but behaviorally. That goal is in keeping with what MSU Senior Vice President Vennie Gore told ELi about the policy in March.