Wednesday, February 21, 2024

How East Lansing residents handle disputes, disagreements, with their student neighbors

February 22, 2022
Downtown East Lansing on Nov. 20, 2020.
Downtown East Lansing on Nov. 20, 2020. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

On Oct. 30, 2021, then-Mayor Jessy Gregg tweeted out photos from her police ride-along. The photos included fires in the street, flipped cars and trash all over the ground.

It was the day of the Michigan State vs. Michigan football game, and just like every year on this day, East Lansing was in chaos. After her ride-along, Gregg shared a Facebook post to denounce the behavior, which was met with comments from East Lansing residents who were also upset with the students’ actions. Some commenters demanded those students be punished; others advocated for greater student outreach from the city or listed people to be brought into the conversation, such as landlords. 

One thing was made clear by the likes and comments: There was a problem between the city’s long-term residents and the college population that flooded it each fall. This problem has been present for decades, and although it spikes around fall move-in and football season, it is constantly here. 

Someone who has experienced this issue first-hand is psychology freshman Jenna Benbraham. 

Life in a college town

Benbraham has lived in East Lansing all her life, and as a child, she had several interactions with students either intoxicated in her backyard or trying to break into her house. When these instances arose, Benbraham and her family would ask them to leave, and that usually worked, but they did call the police one time when a student tried to rob her family member.  

Regardless of these issues, Benbraham always enjoyed living in a college town, just like many of East Lansing’s permanent residents. But when issues such as giant inflatable beer cans, phallic snow sculptures, loud noises and couch burnings come into the picture, the permanent residents tend to take up an issue with their student neighbors. 

Although many of these disputes are handled either directly between neighbors or reported to the police, there are people from the city and university tasked with solving these disputes, which is an effort to improve the relationship between the city and the university.

Community Liaison Suchitra Webster and Neighborhood Resource Specialist, or NRS, Tonya Williams are among the people tasked with this job. 

Webster’s role at MSU is to work with the city, landlords, property managers and students to help non-campus entities understand how the campus operates and to build those relationships. Similarly, Williams works for the city to focus on the quality of life issues that police intervention cannot solve, including low-priority calls and community engagement. 

One aspect of the job is planning for events such as football games. This involves working closely with the police and communicating with off-campus students about behavioral expectations. After these events, they analyze what went right or wrong and how to improve for next time. 

Neighbor disputes 

When it comes to instances with specific disputes between neighbors, Webster and Williams often get called, along with the police and city council, to mitigate the problem. When this happens, they form direct contact with the parties involved and try to dissolve the issue peacefully, which works a majority of the time. 

“I think the approach is definitely important,” Williams said. “Sometimes, considering the lack of criminal activity, having an officer go there might not help the situation. It could feel very punitive when there's really no criminal act happening, so having NRS be a go-between is a perfect example of community policing.”

This technique has been adopted more fully in recent years, and Gregg said the NRS position was created a year-and-a-half ago amid calls for police reform and reorganization.

“There's kind of a general inclination not to call the police on your neighbors, basically, because it feels like a very aggressive action, even though that's really the way that we've made our system in terms of enforcement,” Gregg said. “Including a position within our police department that was a little bit less crime-focused and a little bit more quality of life-focused seems like a good way to start to address those neighbor-to-neighbor and student resident to permanent resident issues.”

Both Webster and Williams agreed that East Lansing and MSU relations have been improving over the past decade, but that improvement has been hindered in recent years. 

In 2020 and 2021, students and the university were often blamed for rising COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in East Lansing. As these outbreaks grew, permanent residents became more frustrated with students not following COVID-19 protocols, some going to bars and having parties. 

Gregg recalled receiving many calls from frustrated homeowners during that time, and sometimes that frustration came from a place of misunderstanding. Since some students live in houses with as many as 20 people at a time, even though those households may have been following COVID-19 protocols, households with only a few people viewed those larger houses as not following the rules. 

Despite some of the issues that arose from the pandemic, Webster said one positive that came out of the situation was that East Lansing and MSU began working more closely.

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“The university, the city and then the Ingham County Health Department started working together in a way that they didn't have to before,” Webster said. “That's not to say there weren't communications before, but the pandemic elevated everything to a level where it was like, ‘We need to meet every week and have a discussion about this.' … Those meetings continue today, which I think is something that came out of the pandemic.”

Town developments

Not only has the pandemic affected relationships between residents and students, but so has the rapid development East Lansing has undergone in the past decade. With the building of apartments all across town and high-rises in the downtown area, there has been some push-back.

“I think that there's a certain population within the city — people who have lived here for a long time and are kind of used to East Lansing, as they used to know it — who are a little uncomfortable with the tall buildings,” Gregg said. “I've heard more complaints just about the height than about the number of people living in them. So, I think the complaints are more focused just on the change from what people are used to than specifically having students living in apartment buildings.”

Despite the strains on the relationship between the city and university, both parties are devoted to improving this relationship, which the new two-year live-on requirement and efforts from permanent residents to make students feel welcome at neighborhood association meetings attest to. Moving forward, the university and city hope to foster a healthy relationship between residents and students, as they believe it is central to each other's success. 

“A lot of times (the community) gets divided into students (versus) residents,” Williams said. “But if we really start to take a look at it, it is the residents that keep the city going during the summertime, and it’s the students that bring a lot of vibrancy during the school year. So, each group plays its own role, which makes us an amazing city. I think just a little bit more communication, patience and understanding is going to go a long way in mending those fences since the pandemic.”

This story is part of our 2022 spring housing guide. Read the full issue here.

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