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MU Residential Life uncertain about future of campus housing for graduate students

Thursday, December 6, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:06 a.m. CST, Friday, December 7, 2012
MU Residential Life is considering renovating its graduate student apartments. The apartments, including some that were built in the 1950s, house 5 percent of MU's 6,481 graduate students.

COLUMBIA — As upscale student apartments surface around Columbia and residence halls rise with MU’s student population, the Department of Residential Life continues to search for a long-term housing solution for graduate students and students with families.

Since 2008, Residential Life has explored renovating or rebuilding four aging complexes known as University Student Apartments, particularly University Village and University Heights on South Providence Road, Residential Life Director Frankie Minor said.

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Residential Life reserves the apartments for students with children, married students, single graduate students and students older than 21 — demographics likely to prioritize close proximity to campus, affordable housing and access to child care and public transportation.

"These are typically not the type of students receiving financial support like your traditional undergrad," Minor said.

In total, 436 residents have contracts with the apartments, which also include Manor House and Tara Apartments. Graduate or professional students comprise 76 percent of the tenant population, according to statistics provided by Residential Life.

MU Vice Chancellor Cathy Scroggs, who heads a committee on graduate housing, said the university remains committed to providing inexpensive graduate and family housing. But it also needs to acknowledge the financial realities of a competitive, high-rent private apartment market, she said.

In what manner MU moves forward in the graduate housing market remains unclear. Universities across the country are wrestling to remain loyal to their graduate and family housing residents as well as adhere to their bottom lines.

"Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Iowa State and many others — they're all struggling with the same issue," Minor said.

Affordable and close, but ...

University Village was constructed in 1956, and University Heights was completed three years later. The two-story, terrace-style apartments were built to accommodate married students, according to the student housing reference file in the MU archives.

The adjoining complexes stand nearly unchanged since their original construction. Residents complain of leaky windows, cracked ceilings and chipped paint. The faded-brown bricks, fluorescent lights and iron stairwells give the exterior an impersonal feel.

But they are convenient. Campus is just across Providence Road. The Student Parent Center at University Village provides day care for the children of residents. And rent, relatively speaking, is cheap.

For example, a two-bedroom apartment at University Village runs $485 a month plus utilities. A two-bedroom apartment at the Ashwood Apartments near campus starts at $670 a month plus utilities, according to Ashwood's brochure. Both complexes allow children.

From Nepal to Columbia

Finances, a short walk to campus and the comfort of dealing with the university instead of a private landlord lured Bhawani Mishra to University Village in 2006.

Mishra, a doctoral candidate in agricultural and applied economics, moved from Nepal with his wife, Kalpana, and 4-year-old daughter Anusha.

Mishra spoke English but had little working knowledge of the U.S. housing market, he said. Like many international students coming to school in the U.S., Mishra couldn’t visit apartments and shop around. A friend already studying at MU linked him to the University Student Apartments' website. 

"It’s a good thing for international students to be close to the university," Mishra said. "And I like going through the institution. You know who you’re dealing with."

International residents account for 42 percent of the graduate and family housing population. Nearly half of those residents are from China.

Now, as he wraps up his degree, Mishra, 40, said he’s been relatively happy with residential life. He said they’ve responded to most of his maintenance requests.

His only complaint is the annual increase in rent. Rent usually jumps 2 percent to 3 percent per year, Minor said.

"I recommend that my friends stay with the university," Mishra said. "The apartments look very old, but you’ve got to judge by multiple variables."

Alana Flowers, president of Mizzou Families Involved Together, or MizFit, toured University Heights in January 2011. She was searching for an apartment for herself and her 3-year-old daughter, Addyson.

"It was not appealing," Flowers said. "It's located next to a busy road, and it gets really dark at night."

Roughly 15 percent of the residents at the University Student Apartments live with their spouse or children, according to information provided by Residential Life.

Catherine Leviten-Reid, a professor of community economic development at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia, said that as MU weighs its options, the challenges of a graduate student juggling a full-time workload while raising a child should be kept in mind.

In 2009, Leviten-Reid co-authored a study, "Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics," that explored the institutional disadvantages of graduate students, often without an income, caring for children.

"Old institutions were developed at a time when most students who went to university were males," Leviten-Reid said. "The institutions are changing slower than the world around them."

Along with day care in the student apartments, Leviten-Reid recommends a co-op system at the housing complex so students can exchange high chairs, strollers and winter wear.

Finding a place to live

Mishra’s 6 1/2-year tenancy is rare for the University Student Apartments. Scroggs said the average student stays 18 months. A few years ago, Residential Life capped the maximum stay to three years.

Scroggs and Minor have noticed out-of-state and international students using the apartments as a transitional residence until they better familiarize themselves with Columbia. This insight has shifted the administrators' outlook on the future of graduate and family housing.

"I don’t have an answer on how to replace or renovate the housing," Scroggs said. "But our residents are getting here, getting accustomed to the community and moving out. We need to step our game up in referring them to off-campus housing."

Graduate Professional Council President Kristofferson Culmer, who has worked closely with Scroggs on the issue, said MU's future role could be that of a mediator, channeling students toward off-campus housing options.

"Students from out-of-state and out-of-the-country shouldn't be left to their own devices to find housing," he said. "After talking with graduate students, the issue isn't with the conditions of housing but the process of acquiring housing."

The MU Wellness Resource Center's off-campus housing office already acts as a hub, helping undergraduate and graduate students find off-campus residences. More than 2,000 students visited the center's off-campus housing fair on Nov. 14.

The office is staffed by a part-time graduate student, but Wellness Resource Center Director Kim Dude said a new position — a full-time, off-campus housing coordinator — is expected to be created by summer 2013.

"We put special emphasis on populations like international students, students with children and freshman who can't find a spot in the residence halls," Dude said.

Minor said 5 percent of MU's 6,481 graduate students live in Residential Life housing. He's working with a bioinformatics team to map out where graduate students who live off campus cluster. He said understanding the students' behavior can help craft Residential Life's plans.

"If I had to guess, I bet they're living around public transportation, near schools and grocery stores," Minor said.

At other universities

Helen Baker oversees the two university apartment complexes at the University of Iowa. Just like MU, Iowa’s apartments cater to families and graduate students but imposes no age restriction, unlike MU's restriction of 21 years and older.

Baker said the apartments’ age is becoming a factor. Hawkeye Drive Apartments, which has 168 two-bedroom apartments, was built in 1960. The 427-unit Hawkeye Court was built in 1968.

Rent for a two-bedroom apartment ranges from $480 to $600 a month, lower than the average rate in Iowa City.

As with MU, Baker said any plan to rebuild the apartments would push rent higher than cost-conscious students can afford.

"All of the schools in the Big 10 are struggling with it," Baker said. "These apartments are aging. We’re trying to keep affordable housing for students, but if we rebuild, it’ll be hard to keep the rent low, especially with the competition."

The University of South Carolina has decided to stop providing graduate and family housing by 2016.

The university has two apartment complexes with 177 units total. The apartments accommodate 2 percent of the 7,340 graduate and professional students enrolled, said Heather Young, coordinator for marketing and communications for university housing.

After analyzing the financial implications of renovating or rebuilding the graduate apartments, Young said in an email, "We determined as an institution that the private market could address the needs of our graduate students and their families."

SEC schools that have left the graduate housing market are the University of Auburn, the University of Arkansas, the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia and the University of Tennessee, Minor said.

Vanderbilt University and Mississippi State University also plan to close their facilities by 2016, he said.

Possible solutions at MU

MU's Department of Residential Life, a self-sufficient operation that doesn't receive funding from the state, has yet to find space in its $2.8 million budget to finance renovation for the University Student Apartments.

Minor said he has spoken with private developers about rebuilding University Heights and University Village, but it's been a struggle finding a financially feasible model. 

"Most private developers don't want anything to do with graduate and family housing," Scroggs said.

So far, Minor said any renovation model he's toyed with would raise two-bedroom rent to $1,300 a month to recover the costs.

University Village's flood-plain designation makes renovations even more difficult. Bordered to the west by Flat Branch Creek, 10 of the complex's 14 buildings are situated on ground designated as "100-year flood plain elevation," according to MU Campus Facilities' stormwater master plan map.

To renovate while also accommodating the same number of students, Residential Life would have to fill in the land to at least 2 feet above the flood plain or add floors to its current housing not in the flood plain.

"You see children living in highrises in New York and Chicago, but we don't want that here," Minor said.

Another option is the master lease, similar to what MU does at Campus View Apartments. Residential Life would rent out apartments and run them like the University Student Apartments. This idea, too, is in the preliminary stages.

"We've got a ways to go," Minor said. "We're not going to get out of the business all together. Right now we just can't afford to reinvest in the current type of facilities."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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