Student housing squeeze in Kent

By Jeremy Nobile | Staff Writer Published:

As Kent State University achieves some of its highest enrollment and retention rates ever, campus and city officials are collaborating on how to address what has become an apparent housing shortage for college students.

As assessment evaluating the housing needs for Kent and its college's student population should be finished next spring.

But, officials say, the need is apparent.

"The city of Kent recognizes that, currently, there is a shortage in the availability of rental housing for students, so additional rental housing is needed," said Kent Community Development Director Bridget Susel. "The question is just how much."

KSU students are jockeying for space both on and off campus as occupancy rates hover at 100 percent in dorms, apartments and rental homes, according to city, university and real estate officials.

Most area apartment complexes hit their maximum capacities earlier this summer. Some had waiting lists so long they stopped taking names for them.

Meanwhile, on campus, staging first-year students in overflow housing in lounges and common areas at the beginning of semesters has become commonplace in recent years.

Last week, when classes began at KSU, about a dozen students found themselves sharing overflow living quarters. However, Jill Church, director of residence services, said all those students should have their own rooms after this weekend as there's always a small number of students who don't arrive at KSU as planned for whatever reason.

Greg Jarvie, KSU's vice president of enrollment management and student affairs, said it's a good problem to have from the university's perspective because it means the college is attracting more students and keeping them around longer.

He said this year's freshman class is estimated around 4,200 students -- a figure that's held constant for the last three years and is projected to continue in that trend.

About 30 percent of that group commutes to campus, but the others have to find living accommodations. And freshman and sophomore students are required to live on campus if they don't commute.

Meanwhile, retention rates are around 80 percent, Jarvie said -- measurably higher than retention rates of about 74 percent five years ago.

The Kent campus has about 6,500 beds available between 25 dorms -- down from about 7,000 a couple years ago. That's roughly enough beds for about 25 percent of the entire student body based on 2013's enrollment figures. That includes about 3,000 international students, KSU's highest number yet.

Church said the university has reconfigured some dorms to abate that reduction by converting single rooms to doubles, double rooms to triples, and requiring resident advisers to have roommates for the first time ever.

But with more students not only coming to KSU but also finishing their degrees there, questions arise of where all those people will call home.

ASSESSING THE NEED

As a result, the city is soliciting proposals from consultant groups to draw up a "Comprehensive Community Housing Study and Needs Analysis." The numbers-driven study will assess present and future housing opportunities for various demographics to better understand projected housing demands for the plannable future.

The study will also review those enrollment and retention trends, the university's geographic draw radius for new students, and the high school graduation trends within that radius, Susel said.

A company should be selected to complete that study in the coming months. A draft analysis should be ready around the end of the year with a final assessment completed by March 2015.

"The results from the analysis will provide the community with quantitative data that can be used to facilitate discussion on housing and provide a realistic foundation upon which good public policy in the area of housing can be formulated and implemented," Susel said.

The university has no plans currently to build any new dorms -- KSU has actually torn down housing in recent years between the former Small Group residence halls demolished in 2008 and Allerton Apartments that were partly razed in July 2012 and will be finished off in July 2015.

But the need for more beds is becoming increasingly apparent.

"Those are important things we're going to be thinking about," Jarvie said.

Developers are already thinking about that, though, as proposals for new student housing developments continue to arise.

In Franklin Township, a project for new student apartments across from Dix Stadium was recently shot down when trustees denied rezoning the vacant land for a higher density residential use.

In Kent, a developer has offered the city $1.4 million for property where the city hall and administrative offices sit between downtown and the Kent campus.

And, Susel added, Aspen Heights, an Austin, Texas-based student-housing developer, has approached both the city and township about a 550-bed housing project that could be located just south of East Main Street and Sixth Avenue and would first require a rezoning of its own.

"The issues associated with housing, student as well as other tenure types, is multi-faceted," Susel said. "But as the revitalized downtown continues to attract visitors and students alike and enrollment and retention rates at the university continues to rise, it is imperative that the needed housing data be collected and analyzed in order to understand the community's housing market both now and into the future."

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1126 or jnobile@recordpub.com

Facebook: Jeremy Nobile, Record-Courier

Twitter: @jnobile_RPC

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