No two college towns are alike, but it’s safe to say that rental housing costs will always be higher with a big, growing university in a small market.
Why? As students who can’t find rooms on campus overflow into neighborhoods, local landlords peg their rents to the cost of room and board at the university. And with mom and dad or student loans paying the rent, students can usually outbid local workforce families.
Recently, a new wrinkle has been added to the housing crunch felt by locals in college towns. The big national student housing developers have bid up rents with luxury amenities like fitness centers, clubhouses, pools and group study lounges, then effectively converted them to college dorms by renting out apartments by the bedroom – no families need apply (or can afford to).
Let’s do the arithmetic. At $700 a bedroom in most student complexes, that effectively sets the price of a three -bedroom apartment at $2,100 a month. That means a family of four should be earning $6,500 a month to afford that rent (30 percent of income) while the median income in Flagstaff is well below that.
It’s no wonder that a recent ECONA report calls the crisis in affordable rental housing in Flagstaff “acute” and growing. Student housing pressure ripples through the entire housing market, and the study estimated that nearly two-thirds of all renters are paying much more than that 30 percent of income rule of thumb.
Thus, it was painful to listen to the Flagstaff City Council Tuesday as they considered Mill Town, yet another luxury, 1,200-bed student housing project that will undermine their top stated priority: making housing in Flagstaff more affordable. Several suggested reserving some of the Mill Town apartments for members of the local workforce at affordable rents; another even wanted to allow the homeless to move in. But without any money of their own or from other partners, the council was essentially left to beg.
That’s not how some other college towns have gotten out ahead of the big student housing developers. Some have formed municipal housing corporations with their local universities and done their own student/community housing projects, but as multi-purpose “villages” that include businesses employing local workers and training opportunities for students. Housing units are rented to a mix of students, staff, local families and retirees, and neighborhood councils vet residential and commercial tenants.
That might sound too ambitious or too late for Flagstaff. The city has only just gotten around to approving so-called “high occupancy housing” zones after enrollment on the Mountain Campus nearly doubled in the last decade and a half-dozen mega projects are already in the planning and construction stages. And unless we’ve missed something, neither NAU nor the Board of Regents has come close to proposing any kind of meaningful housing development partnerships or joint planning around enrollment growth.
That isn’t to say that NAU, on balance, has not been a net positive force in Flagstaff. Whether it’s well-paying jobs, spinoff businesses, or a vibrant creative culture, the university is vital to what makes Flagstaff so inviting a place to live and work.
But the pressures of rapid growth are hard to ignore, whether in student misbehavior in the neighborhoods, overpriced housing, traffic congestion or the burdens on public safety and other services. At the least, the council ought to hold Vintage Partners accountable to the city’s affordable housing goals and deny the rezoning until the developer agrees not to rent a portion of its complex by the bedroom. If the council can also leverage some affordable workforce units out of the deal, more the better.
And looking at the broader picture, it’s clear the city can’t win the affordable housing battle alone. It desperately needs NAU as a formal, contributing partner in managing not only the impacts of enrollment growth but the many opportunities for neighborhood and community enrichment. Town/gown relationships are always tricky to get right. But Flagstaff and NAU don’t have to invent the wheel or go it alone. Check out the International Town-Gown Association at http://www.itga.org/ for more ideas before it really is too late.