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David Snodgress | Bloomington Herald-Times
Indiana University seniors Alex Keszei, left, and Nate Berbesque lounge on their porch couch.

IU porch couches in danger

– Up and down Lincoln and Washington streets, southwest of the Indiana University campus, couches on porches are part of college life.

Below an armrest may lie an empty glass bottle on its side, having rolled away from other remnants of the weekend’s cheap drink. Within an arm’s length of a sunken cushion, on a table or a ledge, cigarette butts may spill from the rim of a ceramic bowl.

In winter, the couches are left mostly unused, but tenants hope they will survive the rain and the snow to serve them in the spring, providing a quick and cushy place to crash between classes or a gathering place for friends during late-night activities.

Where college-aged men and women see porch couches as comfy, city officials see damp and squishy. The heads of neighborhood associations cringe at yellow stuffing bursting from seats and armrests. These couches are rat houses, critics say. Filthy. The only culture this furniture represents is measured in mildew.

So, as of Dec. 28, upholstered furniture on porches was banned by Bloomington’s city government. The change came during a recent update of the municipal code for rental properties; porch couches were a noncontroversial item for the city council compared with requirements being imposed on landlords to install hard-wired, interconnected smoke detectors in all of their units.

The student renters of Bloomington, who aren’t necessarily tuned in to city politics, are puzzled by why anyone would legislate their furniture choices.

“They have more value on the porch than they do in the dump,” Heidi Peck, a junior at IU, said. The front of her rental home on Washington Street has two couches, one on either side of the door.

It is an understated part of the culture to these students – not sacred, but a worthwhile addition to their college experience.

“It will be a sad day,” said Devon McShane, a former IU student who took a moment to imagine Bloomington without porch couches. “Ever since I moved in, it was the first thing: let’s find some couches.”

Lisa Abbott, director of Bloomington’s department of Housing and Neighborhood Development, said a debate over porch couches here is not “anyone versus anyone.” Bloomington is just copying other communities in a way that makes sense for most regulators.

“Over the number of years I have been here, other communities have decided to not allow them, so I thought it would be good here,” Abbott said. “It’s been a thing where people say, “So-and-so community is doing this, can’t we do that?

“You can hardly blame them. You have upholstered furniture on the porch, getting wet. Creatures will find warm and soft havens in the cushions. It can be an unpleasant sight.”

Porch couches, at the same time, are not something Housing and Neighborhood Development inspectors will explicitly target for fines, at least not in the near future.

If they see trash to be cleaned on a tenant’s property, Abbott said, her staff might tack on a conversation about the couch on the porch. But there are no plans to crack down on the porch couch.

Peck and her housemates don’t plan on relinquishing their porch couches any time soon.

“We probably won’t do anything unless it’s enforced. And if it’s enforced, we’ll probably throw a cover over (the couch) and call it good and assume that nobody is going to come up and look under the couch cover and then write us a ticket,” she said.

“They barely enforce other strange ordinances. I can’t imagine them being hard-pressed on this one.”

Down the road on Washington Street, juniors Damion Schiralli, Sarah Dunevant, Ian Woodke and their friend, Zach Malcom, paused a show on their PlayStation 3 and reflected, for a moment, on their porch couch.

They were shocked by the news that their couch was banned. But Malcom, who works at Goodwill, grumbled more about the idea of having to load dozens of abandoned couches onto trucks.

“I think a lot of kids just want to have porch furniture, and a lot of students don’t want to go out to Kmart to buy a table and chair set,” Dunevant said.

In the end, the quartet sounded little concern about the dreary appearance of their outside furniture. It was free, and, to them, unassuming. Woodke went as far to call the porch couch “as much a part of the college house aesthetic as anything.”

The only question that sticks, with every IU resident on the block, is “really?”

“I think that it’s obnoxious. It’s trying to regulate the privacy of a house,” Peck said. “Do other things with your time. Help clean up Lake Lemon. Help get the PCBs out of the water – but don’t focus on the couches.”