In comparison to the overabundance of off-campus housing, the shortage of housing on campus serves as perhaps one of the universe’s greater cosmic jokes. The student population, which has reached about 34,900, has seen unprecedented growth in recent years. Total enrollment increased 3.7 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to data released by the university. Unsurprisingly, this surge in enrollment has caused issues in the availability of housing on campus.
First-year, full-time undergraduates are required to live in one of the university’s residence halls. Last year, the college welcomed 6,478 freshmen - its largest freshman class ever, which created a shortage of
campus-based housing. The overflow of freshmen were sent to off-campus studentapartments contracted through the university, said Alicia Browne, director of housing administration the university's Housing and Residential division.
Furthermore, until this year, students who were National Merit or National Achievement Finalists received housing scholarships that provided four years of on-campus housing. The university has since reduced the scholarship to one year.
Additionally, returning students may be wait-listed and offered housing at a later date if there is a shortage of campus-based housing. “Demand for campus housing will likely exceed supply, and some students who wish to return to campus housing in fall 2014 will not be able to,” according to the university’s Housing and Residential Communities division website.
The HRC, which helps manage student housing, also keeps students informed on off-campus housingoptions, Browne said. The department hosts off-campus housing fairs for students, including those who are unable to live on-campus due to shortages. Students may also use HRC’s online tool, “Off Campus Resources” for information on off-campus student complexes and help finding roommates. Additionally, the construction of a new residence hall, the Presidential Village II, may help combat housing strains on campus.
“We are expecting continued growth on campus, but we expect it to come at a more modest rate over the next few years, said Steven Hood, executive director at HRC. “The opening of Presidential Village II concludes our current building plans, but we are beginning to look at next steps.”
Hood said that the university recently hired the same firm that conducted two previous master development plans for the college to conduct an analysis of the off-campus housing market along with an update of the on-campus housing demand. Living-Learning Communities, which are campus-based residency programs that allow participating students to live and study together while taking some of the same courses, will also be further explored to ascertain how and if these programs should continue.
This information will be used to determine the next steps HRC will take, which may include a recommendation for future residence halls and what type of residence hall will be most needed on campus, he said. Consultants will also investigate a manageable price point for students, while meeting the needs of freshmen and reviewing the types of housing needed.
“In addition to providing on-campus housing, we also have two full-time staff members who work to deliver off-campus housing services to students that are moving off-campus after their freshman year,” Hood said. “We are seeking to be proactive to help educate students on what it means to live off-campus.”
Hood explained that this education includes landlord/tenant laws, budgeting for off-campus costs, being a member of the Tuscaloosa community and more.
strange juxtaposition of not having enough student housing on campus,
but too much outside of campus, may be the driving force behind
rumors that declare housing shortages throughout all of Tuscaloosa.
Such speculation is half accurate and half wrong.
If the university continues to grow and direct student overflow to off-campus housing options, the current oversupply of off-campus may be lessened. As stated in a previous section, however, dramatic student population growth cannot be sustained. University spokesman Chris Bryant said in a task force meeting that continued enrollment growth is expected, but at a slower pace than in recent years.
“I believe we addressed all issues at hand,” Maddox said. “At the end of the day, we really needed to know how much UA wants to grow enrollment in the future. However, because those numbers are not available yet, it's hard to predict.”
City officials, particularly council members, generally express a positive outlook when it comes to the future of the off-campus student housing market.
“I think we have clearly decided to take action,” Maddox said. “I believe that we’ve averted any long term effects that would be detrimental to our community. I think the setback would be if we had done nothing.”
Maddox asserted that the city council wisely waited for a full analysis of market conditions and had a public purpose for moving forward with the new proposals, which will help the market stabilize and continue Tuscaloosa’s phenomenal growth.
“I think it’s important that we recognize that we were moving in a direction where the market was becoming so saturated that you create a burden on this community for generations to come,” Maddox said.
Though the task force completed its assigned duties in November, Andrews expressed an interest in reviving the panel – a move that Maddox said he would be open to considering.
“They did an extremely good job providing data, which has been extremely useful, and recommendations [that] were practical,” Maddox said. “Without their work and their objectivity, I’m not sure we would have as solid of a foundation moving forward and a plan for the future.”
However, despite multiple studies, council meetings and committees, and the work of countless officials and consultants, the future of the off-campus student housing market seems relatively unclear.
In addition to uncertain figures regarding student population growth in coming years, the construction of developments approved prior to the formation of the task force may prove problematic.
More than 8,700 beds came up for rent in the fall of 2013, and an additional 3,000 to 3,500 hundred could come onto the market this year, The Tuscaloosa News reported.
Possibly, this will perpetuate oversupply issues. Furthermore, many of the pre-approved complexes will be grandfathered in and will not be required to follow the task force's recommendations, though new developments will.
Though city officials are positive overall, they have not been able to speak definitively about the future of the market. However, most council members conveyed that it will be closely monitored and evaluated and that it maintain on-going efforts to address the situation.
In addition, the university and city officials have publicly initiated a working relationship through the revision of Tuscaloosa's comprehensive development plan that the college's development strategy, the Master Plan. The inclusion of college representatives like Vaughn and Elmore also cemented a university presence on the task force.
Both the university and Tuscaloosa have significant, though opposite, issues regarding the supply of student housing. Perhaps by continuing the established relationship between the two groups, student housing on and off campus can be better addressed.