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Housing for students causes discussion in NWA | The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

FAYETTEVILLE — Off-campus student housing complexes are often large, sometimes spanning an entire block and reaching five or more stories in height.

They cluster around downtown to be close to campus because it’s about the only place that allows for the height and density developers are looking for.

And they’re causing a lot of debate these days about whether they’re part of the problem or part of the solution to a housing crisis that the City Council declared in April. House prices in the city have been rising for years. According to the latest Arvest Skyline report, the average cost of a home in Fayetteville increased from $320,516 in the first half of 2023 to $353,262 in the second half.

The city says it can’t regulate a housing structure based on who lives there, and the University of Arkansas recognizes it needs more housing for its students.

The question is how to meet the needs of students while long-term residents wait for an enrollment cliff to emerge.

Student complexes typically have three to four bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and an open common area with a shared kitchen and living room. They differ from more traditional apartment buildings in that leases are per bed and not per entire unit.

The city code does not distinguish between student housing and any other type of multifamily use, said Jessie Masters, the city’s development manager. The term “multifamily housing” is defined in city code as any residential building with at least five units, she said.

This means that any student complex can be built within a zoning plan that allows multi-family housing, as is the case for much of the city center. Student complexes are subject to the same design standards as multi-family buildings and other downtown structures.

The city code lists a number of permitted land uses within each zoning district. For example, a downtown main street zone, which is how much of downtown is zoned, could accommodate single-family homes up to quadplexes, as well as multifamily buildings, eateries, hotels and short-term rentals.

The city likely wouldn’t be able to separate student housing as its own land use without a legal counterbalance, said city attorney Kit Williams. The federal government prohibits cities from discriminating against students, even if their use was labeled as anything other than “student housing,” he said.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has 20 residence halls with a total of 6,229 beds. It has agreements with off-campus student housing complexes, adding about 1,300 beds to the total. That amounts to approximately 7,500 beds with an enrollment of 32,140 students as of the fall semester.

However, not every off-campus student housing complex has an agreement with the university.

The city has about two dozen student-style complexes, almost all within about two miles of Dickson Street and West Avenue.

The university plans to add about 1,400 beds on campus over the next three years, said Mark Rushing, vice chancellor for university relations.

New residence halls are planned for a vacant lot between the John W. Tyson Building and the Maple Hill complex, southeast of Razorback Road and Cleveland Street.

Work on the new residence halls will start this summer and should be completed in June 2027.

Rushing said the university is aware of a number of student-oriented off-campus residential projects that would add approximately 5,000 new beds over the next three years. All told, about 6,400 beds would be added over the next three years through the efforts of the university and private developers, he said.

“We are hopeful that these increases will help reduce pressure on the Fayetteville housing market, increasing the availability of apartments and rental properties in the area,” Rushing said.

Trinitas Ventures of Lafayette, Indiana, plans to build two student-style complexes in the city: one on Center Street, where the Quonset hut sits near Frisco Trail, and another on Dickson Street, between Block Avenue and Church Avenue. The company has specialized in student housing projects for more than two decades and built the Atmosphere complex southeast of Duncan Avenue and Center Street.

The growing student population is fueling the real estate market in Fayetteville, and that’s what attracted Trinitas, said Grace Ames, the company’s development operations manager.

“What we’re seeing in the rental market is that the students are really dominating and dictating what the expectations are of a property,” she said. “Because that is our specialty, it felt like a nice mix.”

Trinitas plans to have several units within its buildings, and non-students will be welcome to live there, said Todd Wendell, vice president and project manager at the company. A mix of more traditional units — including studios, one, two and three bedrooms — will accompany the student-oriented units, he said.

“The reason we’re doing that is because Fayetteville is well documented to be in a housing crisis, and there’s a real demand for housing,” Wendell said. “If you couple that with a central location – construction projects close to the center of the city – we will most likely end up with a mixed, mixed population of renters.”

Kenna Shaddy, 20, of Bentonville, has lived at the Academy in Frisco, near West Avenue and Maple Street, for the past three years and plans to move to Champions Club Apartments on Razorback Road for her senior year.

She described life in Frisco as being like a college dorm, with a few exceptions. It was a welcome difference to have her own bathroom and access to a kitchen in her unit, instead of somewhere on the floor.

However, the atmosphere of life there was still very dormitory-like.

Fellow tenants can be loud and disruptive and sometimes damage the property, she said.

Shaddy said she would have preferred to live in a more traditional apartment complex, but there are so few available in the city. According to the latest Arvest Skyline Report, the city’s apartment vacancy rate is around 1%.

One benefit of living so close to campus was that Shaddy could walk to class, but downtown life can be chaotic, she said.

She described her time at the complex as “not terrible.”

“At the end of the day, it’s functional and beautiful compared to some of the other places around,” she said.

RESPONSE FROM RESIDENTS

Fayetteville residents Bo Counts and Rob Qualls look at the problem and solutions from different angles, but agree that most working-class adults don’t want to live in a student-oriented complex.

The intended effect of a student complex is often not the reality, according to Counts, owner of pinball machine Pinpoint on Block Street.

The complexes do not foster a sense of community, and since most students go home out of state or are forced to leave in the summer due to the terms of their leases, they can hardly be considered a home, he said.

“Beds will not solve the housing crisis,” Counts said. “Housing solves the housing crisis.”

Off-campus student housing functions the same as an on-campus dorm, Counts said. Residents of these complexes tend to go to school and may frequent the same bars on weekends, but otherwise tend to stay within their units, he said.

Counts said he and other entrepreneurs know that students don’t make great customers; for example, they don’t walk around town on a weekday or visit shops or restaurants.

When they go somewhere, they drive, he said, even if it’s only a short distance, so they might as well live somewhere else in town.

Condensing all the student housing into one area downtown means most customers will have to drive from somewhere else, creating demand for more parking, Counts said. The complexes may claim that anyone can live in them, but the rental terms are often unreasonable for non-students, and most working-class adults wouldn’t want to live with two or three students anyway, he said.

Student-oriented complexes must be distinguished in some way from other multifamily developments in the city code, Counts said. They primarily serve one target group. Counts says he has no objection to the size and scale of many student complexes, only that they are not built to provide permanent housing for all residents.

‘Whatever happened to one and two bedroom apartments? Where have they gone? Why don’t we build more of them?’ Counts said. “I think I already know the answer to that, and that’s greed. The return on investment is lower than the return on investment of putting 600 students on one acre.”

Until there is enough student housing, all new housing will become student housing, said Qualls, a resident who sits on the board of the Fayetteville Public Library. Students who would otherwise live in a ranch-style home and drive across town to class can instead live in a building that meets their needs near campus, he said.

“If we give them housing close to the university where they want to live and that they can afford, that opens up housing for everyone else,” Qualls said.

Building dense, high-rise student housing is also a plus for the rest of the city, Qualls said. It would take a few hundred single-family homes and much more land to accommodate what a seven-story, 600-bedroom student complex could, he said.

Qualls said he understands why student complexes are not desirable for many residents. They are usually quite large, and even if non-students are allowed to live there, they are still expensive, he said.

But no new housing is affordable unless it comes with some sort of subsidy, Qualls said. In addition, multifamily housing in general is still not allowed in most of the city outside of downtown, he said.

“Until we allow for smaller numbers of multi-tenant housing, we will end up with these monstrosities popping up,” Qualls said. “It doesn’t make sense to build them on the edge of the city. It makes sense to build them where you can at least walk, cycle and scooter.”

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