Keeping The 'Town' In College Town

Increased off-campus housing pressure on universities is threatening campus neighborhoods across the nation.

5 minute read

April 24, 2002, 12:00 AM PDT

By Bob Karrow

Bob KarrowA paradigm shift is occurring in college towns across the country. Rejecting the "inevitable" decline of neighborhoods adjacent to college and university campuses, increasing numbers of neighborhood associations, cities, and universities are actively working to revitalize neighborhoods near campuses. Planners and developers need to be aware of this ongoing trend.

A headline in Boulder reads, "CU plans 1,900 new beds as city pressure mounts" In Durham, Duke University has only one unit left for sale in its new Trinity Heights faculty and staff housing project. In Macomb, IL, the city adopted a new definition of family after a neighborhood association, Project H.A.N.D.S., campaigned to improve campus neighborhoods for all residents.

College towns of all sizes, with universities of varying enrollments, are reexamining campus neighborhoods. Student housing issues and neighborhood homeowner concerns are the most frequent impetus. Understanding why this is becoming a hot topic requires some background.

In the early 1900's, many university students lived in owner-operated boarding houses near campus. During the 1930s, the Work Projects Administration built residence halls on campuses that had little or no on-campus housing.  In the 1950s and 60s, more dormitories were built on campuses after Title IV of the Housing Act of 1950, using Federal loans.

Through the 1960s and 70s, enrollments expanded faster than universities could supply on-campus housing. Also, during that time, universities dropped 'In Loco Parentis' policies and shed off-campus living restrictions.

Since then, campuses around the US continued experiencing unprecedented growth in enrollment, while construction of on-campus housing options fell precipitously. Many universities now provide on-campus housing for half or less of their enrolled students,  and ennrollments are predicted to continue increasing over the near future.

Campus neighborhoods began experiencing extraordinary pressure to accommodate new, young, and first-time renters. Concurrently, states raised their minimum drinking ages when Federal highway funding was tied to higher minimum drinking ages. Throughout the 1980's and 90s more institutions banned alcohol on campus. Non-student residents who complained of increased noise, trash, partying and vandalism were often viewed as neighborhood scolds.

Off-campus student rentals became a big business during that period, providing owners after-tax profits of as high as 30 percent. Family incomes also rose, and more parents began purchasing off-campus homes for their students. Non-student residents who tried to alert their cities to the imbalances being created were frequently written off as Not-In-My-Backyarders (NIMBYs), although the non-student population of these traditional neighborhoods had often chosen to locate there precisely because of the vibrant mix they provided.

City governments, facing these issues, often failed to foresee the implications of ever-expanding campuses and increasing enrollments.  In small towns and larger cities once described as, "the quintessential college town," established neighborhoods began to fall apart. Family-owned homes were converted to student rental houses. As the percentage soared, more non-students left the neighborhoods and fewer chose to purchase homes there.

Near-campus areas historically have been desirable residential areas, offering housing for a mix of students, faculty, staff, and as well as homebuyers who prefer traditional neighborhoods, older homes, and the benefits of the nearby campus. They already have the amenities that many new developments seek to recreate.

These neighborhoods are endangered assets. Many have been spiraling downward for over a quarter century. Gainesville, where the city has committed $38,500 on a final study before deciding what to do to preserve and foster the family atmosphere of neighborhoods near the University of Florida, is just one example of communities focusing on these concerns.

Neighborhood associations are growing, and organizing, to conserve their areas. The most startling example of this is neighborhood associations in Washington, DC's, Georgetown area. Through their work, the Board of Zoning Adjustment voted 3-1 in 2001 to amend George Washington University's 10-year campus plan to cap the university's enrollment and its constructing and renovating new buildings until it houses 70 percent of its undergraduates. The university is appealing the ruling.

Universities also are realizing that when you take the town out of college town what's left is a campus in deteriorating surroundings. Duke, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Valparaiso, and other universities are actively protecting and revitalizing their adjacent neighborhoods.  University/Community partnerships are on the rise. These include a wide range of programs, from student service learning projects with neighborhood groups, to mortgage programs directed at drawing faculty and staff back to near-campus homes.

Private developers, too, are recognizing a significant market exists in student housing, creating complexes (off-campus and on) with features today's students look for. New arrangements are being created for university/developer partnerships.

Even individual developers can positively impact on their communities through thoughtful new construction in neighborhoods near campus.  In Starksville, MS, Dan Camp has since 1969 been creating The Cotton District, a model of quality and density for mixed student/non-student housing.

Together, these changes can have a significant impact on planning and development in college towns. They provide new tools to help communities and universities maintain or recreate the vital mix of a healthy near-campus area.

Cities and institutions of higher education must increase joint efforts, examining and employing the additional options for on and off-campus housing now available. Through creative university and neighborhood partnerships, college and university communities can work together to keep the 'town' to college town.


Bob Karrow, a technical writer, has always lived in college towns. His interest in campus neighborhood planning issues began while working with a neighborhood association in 1987. He maintains a personal website, College Town Issues, with information for communities facing the challenges that college towns share.

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