A land of private Pruitt-Igoes
by Ken Midkiff
Will today's "luxury" student apartments become tomorrow's human warehouses, like Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green or Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis? It's a fear many are thinking about but few are talking about, at least not loudly enough.
Cabrini Green had 3,600 units, Pruitt-Igoe, 2,800. At last count, Columbia had surpassed 10,000 student apartment units, with over 2,000 downtown alone.
Columbia's City Council seems hell-bent on converting downtown into apartmentville and -- if history is any guide -- eventually multi-level subsidized housing. These thousands of quickly-built units will age badly under years of student wear and tear, ultimately losing whatever panache -- and student renters -- they once had.
From New York to Los Angeles, examples of this trend abound: When targeted rental housing markets disappear, less affluent populations become the only markets left.
That's fine if your intent is to serve low-income renters, preferably with built-in social service systems that offer job training, financial management courses, disability support, and other "safety net" programs. Or if you're building low-cost homes with ethical financing for low-income homebuyers. And quality, energy-efficient construction regardless.
But if you started out in the quick-rise, faux-luxury student apartment business, how do you pay mortgages without your student renters, or convert thousands of units specially designed for students to serve families, single parents, the elderly, and so forth? It's hard to imagine our local developers considered these long-term dilemmas, but consider them we must.
Crime and poor construction already plague Aspen Heights, a 972-unit student apartment community that isn't even one year old! Combined with falling student populations, the inevitable decline of student apartments bodes poorly for our community.
Presently, the student population at the University of Missouri, Columbia (UMC) is 33,726, of which 25,992 are undergraduates. At that level, it is possible to justify student apartments constructed in the last year or so, including Aspen Heights, Brookside (no brook in sight) and even the two apartment projects recently approved downtown. It is also possible to document demand for more apartments near the UMC campus, as long as Mom and/or Pop pay the rent.
But that's today. College enrollment is shrinking after peaking in 2008, and predictions suggest it will decline at an accelerated pace. The number of entering freshmen shows the sharpest drop, as fewer high school students enter college. UMC officials issued a memo that admissions are expected to fall in 2014 by 417. Freshmen enrollment will continue falling, the experts say, eventually including all undergraduate and graduate students.
Student apartment owners will then face a stark choice: let their units sit empty or open them to the less-fortunate under less-than-desirable conditions.
When it comes to economics and the bottom line, developers are pretty savvy. They usually avoid risk by looking at future predictions and trends. Usually.
But with the 1,335 student apartments before the City Council recently -- Collegiate Housing Partners, American Campus Communities, and Opus Development -- the only risk developers seem to have considered is the risk of inadequate infrastructure.
To be fair, project owners have agreed to pay for roughly 1/20th the infrastructure their apartments will demand -- $1,000,000 of $20 million, if city estimates are any guide. But, in an apparent trade-off, they received concessions that virtually guarantee infrastructure problems will never haunt their developments, no matter if -- or how -- City Hall gets the other $19 mil.
It's an almost free ride that will eventually haunt taxpayers, ratepayers, and residents, as subsidized, Section 8-style rental housing -- poorly-planned for that purpose as it has been for everything else -- becomes the option of last resort for too many faded projects.
A check from Mom and Pop to a check from HUD. Sort of King Midas in reverse, especially for Columbia.