- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

Public universities across the country are in the midst of what may be the largest dormitory building spree since the 1960s, when thousands of dorm rooms sprang up in response to record enrollments as baby boomers started college.

The aim is to improve the quality of life for students forced to live farther away from campus while college cities grapple with a high demand for rental housing.

"It used to be that universities were communities where even the faculty lived on campus," said Mike Eyster, housing director at the University of Oregon. "There's a trend now to pull people back together."

Mr. Eyster, a member of the executive board of the College and University Housing Officers International, increasingly sees institutions renovating, replacing and expanding their aging student housing stock. If universities don't, private industry has proven willing to give students alternatives.

The movement counters public universities' traditional hesitancy toward building new dormitories for undergraduates. In many university cities, the town-gown relationship turns frosty when schools and local governments debate who has responsibility to house students. City planners in many municipalities complain the local university does too little to address the students' effects on the housing market.

But when schools plan to add new housing, the decision has more to do with the school's marketability than the city's pressure. School officials worry over losing potential students to other universities that can provide better places to live.

In many states, legislators expect school dorms to support themselves with boarding fees. Making campus dorms more appealing means providing amenities such as food courts, computer labs, fitness areas and recreation activities.

"What we've got now at most universities is a housing stock that is well maintained, very serviceable but totally inappropriate for how people use them today," Mr. Eyster said.

The basic, sturdy dorms built to meet demand on many campuses in the 1960s lack those amenities and aren't easily modified to include them. Thus, many schools plan extensive renovations or replacing older dorms entirely. At George Washington University, space was so sparse that university officials turned a nearby Holiday Inn into extra living space for its students.

The movement struck the University of Michigan's main Ann Arbor campus last month when the president announced the school would build its first dormitory since 1968 and renovate others.

While Michigan houses 39 percent of its 37,000 students, Ann Arbor city officials say the school should do more.

Residents face a shortage of affordable rental housing, and a growing number of students are moving to outlying communities and commute to class by car, Ann Arbor city planner Wendy Rampson said.

Still, the city had little leverage over the state institution.

"They'd been telling us for years they wouldn't do it, that it would be too expensive," Miss Rampson said. "In the area of housing, we'd pretty much given up. When they announced this new dorm, you had to pull us off the floor."

The University of Michigan's decision to build new dorms had more to do with attracting students than it did succumbing to city pressure, said university spokesman Jim Kosteva.

"Our decision to undertake new construction and renovation has been based upon that," Mr. Kosteva said. "How the questions of housing affordability get addressed is more the mission of the civic institutions and of the government, not the university."

Where universities don't build student housing, private industry often does sometimes to the detriment of school facilities. Housing officials find an increasing number of national builders willing to build modern dorm-style complexes off campus and on.

At the University of Oregon, which has dormitories but does not require students to live there, the university resisted Eugene city officials' pressure for years to build student housing in a tight market.

Three years ago, rental housing had almost no vacancies. Since then, private companies built scores of apartments specifically for students, said Richie Weinman, Eugene's housing and neighborhood-issues coordinator.

"Suddenly, the dorms aren't full," Mr. Weinman said. "A lot of the problem is that the dorm rooms are old and small, and they just don't appeal to students anymore."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide