The housing squeeze: an uncomfortable college ritual

With off-campus rents skyrocketing, more students want back in the dorms. But rooms are hard to come by.

Everywhere you look in Boston, college students are doing the annual housing squeeze.

They pile into homes split into oddly sized apartments with century-old plumbing. They cram into basements and attics hastily divided into bedrooms with makeshift bathrooms.

The high cost - measured in rents or rats - was once seen as a fair trade for freedom from the fluorescent-lighted sameness of dorm living.

But today, students are having to look ever further afield for low-quality apartments at ever-higher rents.

Many would just as soon head back to the dorms.

One problem, though. Across the United States, college dorms are already stuffed to the max. More dorms are being built, but not fast enough to keep up with fast-rising enrollments.

In university towns from Boston to Berkeley, Calif., it's not just a college problem but a major cause of citywide affordable-housing shortages. In some places, the crisis is creating new tensions between colleges and their host cities.

With dorm space in short supply, the university in general "is facing a lot of questions about how it should conduct itself with regard to student housing," says Larry Rosenthal of the Program on Housing and Urban Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

In Boston, City Councilor Stephen Murphy urges that colleges voluntarily contribute to an affordable-housing fund by paying $1,000 per semester for every student who moves off campus.

"It is not my intention to solve the housing crisis on the backs of students who are already super-burdened by tuition and housing," says Mr. Murphy. "But colleges need to recognize that when they take in more students than they can house, they are exacerbating the problem."

Area schools reject the idea, and say they are building more dorms. Northeastern University, for example, opened a 600-bed dorm last fall, a 440-bed dorm this fall, and plans to open another 600-bed dorm next fall. Boston University opened a 817-bed dorm this week, giving it the ability to house 75 percent of its undergraduates - more than any other large private college in the country.

But Murphy and others say that is not enough; colleges need to do more to help replenish the affordable-housing stock.

Statistically, the city is in fact at its breaking point. Currently, Boston has less than 3 percent vacancy for rentals. In 1999 alone, rents of two- and three-bedroom apartments rose 9 percent, while the number of advertised apartments fell 30 percent, according to Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development.

Another sign of off-kilter supply and demand: The current $1,550 asking price on a typical two-bedroom apartment is 65 percent higher than federal fair-market standards. And incomes have not kept pace with housing costs.

"This combination ... is pricing many people out of the market or causing them to spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on housing," says Barry Bluestone, director of Northeastern's Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

He says the hundreds of thousands of students spilling into Boston's housing market add to the problem. His office wrote a report, due out in September, that calls for building more dorms, "more than what has been built, more than what is under construction, even more than what is pending."

While the problem ripples out to affect all renters, students bear much of the cost.

Consider Boston University seniors Cate Littmann and Charlotte Sidor. They moved out of the dorms and into an apartment three years ago. A 20-minute walk from campus, their apartment is on the second floor of a four-story Victorian home. Originally just two bedrooms, a third was squeezed in over the porch and perches precariously.

The attic was converted into a two-bedroom apartment, and there are plans for another apartment in the dirt-floor basement.

The women say their rent has gone up three times since they moved in, and this last time - to $1,800 - is more than they can afford. "He can raise the rent like that because he knows students are going to pay it," says Ms. Sidor, an anthropology major. "He claims he can get $2,100 for this place. He probably can."

So they will grudgingly pay the $1,800 and hope it doesn't go up again.

Sidor concedes that students like herself are partly responsible for the lack of affordable housing in Boston. "But what should we do, not go to school?"

While the city waits for more new dorms, affordable-housing advocates are urging moderation on landlords. Florence Hagins of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance says she tries to educate landlords that just because the market can command high rents doesn't mean it's going to be beneficial in the long run.

"If you have three or four people in one unit, there's a higher likelihood that you'll have to repair it after they leave," she says. College students also tend to have higher turnover and eviction rates than other tenants, she says.

Take, for example, Mike Barbera, and his four buddies. They moved out of Northeastern's dorms their sophomore year and have changed apartments every year. "We kind of got evicted from our first one, the second one was a rat trap, and the third one is just too expensive," says this senior in accounting. The group is moving again in a few weeks - this time much further from campus. They soon will be spending $2,200 instead of their current $2,650, which Mr. Barbera calls "a little less than highway robbery."

Even so, the rents don't make him want to move back on campus. "There are just too many restrictions," he says, adding that dorm life is not that much cheaper.

A freshman at Northeastern will pay close to $500 a month, while an upperclassman will pay more than $650. At Boston University's new posh apartment-style dorm, upperclassmen pay close to $900 a month. The view alone - overlooking the Charles River - is worth that much.

"It used to be that letting kids out their junior and senior years was a blessing because it made for happier and better students," says Mr. Rosenthal. "Now it makes for unhappy students, because they can't afford it."

A key factor behind the on-campus housing crunch, educators say, is the rising number of college students. US Department of Education figures show 63 percent of high school graduates go to college. Twenty years ago, only half did so.

Boston and San Francisco are not the only cities suffering from lack of on-campus housing. Ohio State University in Columbus, for example, is also feeling the pinch. Dorms there can house only about 10,000 of the 50,000 students.

"What we've noticed since 1995 is that more students are opting to stay on campus a second year. That's making things really tight," says Willie Young, director of the off-campus student-housing office.

Colleges may be partly to blame. They have begun building dorms with all the amenities of home in an effort to compete with one another. At Ohio State, for example, high-speed Internet access, cable, microwave ovens, refrigerators, and phones with voice mail come with each room.

With so many wanting to return to campus, colleges are finding some creative housing solutions. Hotels, YMCAs, ski lodges, and dorms at less-crowded schools have all been used as overflow. Ohio State will try housing 26 regular students in a rented fraternity house this year.

The cost of renting an apartment in Columbus is cheap comparatively. A single goes for about $300 a month and a double for between $375 and $525.

The difference, says Northeastern's Dr. Bluestone, is that Columbus has not seen the same influx of jobs and people. Professionals on the high end and immigrant families on the middle and low ends have been pouring into cities like Boston and San Francisco. Add hundreds of thousands of students each year, and you've got a housing crisis.

Making the problem worse in Berkeley was the easing of rent-control laws since January 1999. One-bedroom apartments now rent for about $1,200 a month; two-bedrooms go for $1,600.

"That's way higher than they were before 1999," says Sondra Jensen of UC Berkeley's housing department.

Five years ago, the university was trying to coax students into returning to campus, Ms. Jensen says. With skyrocketing rents, the staff is now scrambling to find beds for everyone. This year, once the freshmen were placed in dorms, only 900 spots remained. The university received 2,800 applications for on-campus housing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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