Student housing affordability in College Park isn’t likely to improve soon, officials say

The View, one of College Park's student housing options. (Gary Chen/The Diamondback)

When sophomore Rayna Shields began hunting for housing for the next academic year, she had her eye on Terrapin Row. She liked its proximity to the University of Maryland’s campus.

But that changed when she saw how much it would cost to live there — a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom apartment in the complex costs just under $1,200 a month.

“It was so much more expensive than living [in] the dorm,” said Shields, a public health science major. “It makes you want … to just commute, because it’s so much money.”

Vacancy rates for student apartments in College Park are much lower than the national average for residential rentals. And as demand for housing in the area has increased, students are struggling to pay increasing per-bed rent prices.

This year, monthly rent prices at several apartment buildings in the city have increased by more than $30, including at South Campus Commons, The Varsity and The View. Meanwhile, city officials are racing to bring in developers that will increase the housing supply.

Some students, like senior government and politics major Patrick Bortel, have moved into houses in College Park neighborhoods to dodge the higher rents in apartments closer to campus.

“It blows my mind,” Bortel said.

 

By the numbers

In 2018, 6.9 percent of residential rental units in the U.S. were vacant. Maryland’s rate was even higher at 9 percent, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But in College Park, 2018’s student housing vacancy rate — not including single family homes rented to students — was 1.9 percent. said Ryan Chelton, the economic development coordinator for College Park.

It’s a problem other colleges have noticed, too. In 2018, University of California at Davis released recommendations to address student housing costs after experiencing low vacancy rates for a number of years.

And the demand for student housing in College Park doesn’t appear to be decreasing anytime soon.

Over the last 10 years, this university has steadily admitted more students, with the number of enrolled students increasing in most years. Since fall 2015, undergraduate enrollment has increased by 11 percent.

In 2013, this university’s fall enrollment numbers included just over 26,500 undergraduate students. Last fall, that number was over 30,700.

“That’s 4,000 increase,” said Bob Catlin, the interim chairman of the College Park Housing Authority and a former city council member. “That’s 4,000 more beds you need.”

With its high demand and low supply, Catlin compared College Park’s student housing situation to a game of musical chairs — developers can regularly raise rent on the city’s student beds because the extra costs won’t deter student renters desperate for a room.

“If you had some normal vacancy rates, which you expect in apartments, like 5 percent or so, then they really couldn’t do that,” Catlin said.

Demand for off-campus housing could also be driven up by the fact that juniors and seniors aren’t often provided spots in on-campus housing, which Scott Young, an associate director for the Department of Resident Life, said is reserved for freshmen and sophomores, along with exempted groups such as resident assistants.

Because the department wanted to minimize the number of lounges and flex rooms used to accommodate students this academic year, many upperclassmen weren’t given the option to participate in room selection at all, Young said.

“Our director said, ‘We’re not doing that again,’’’ Young said. “So she said, ‘Whatever you need to do in terms of managing the occupancy, we need to do.’”

And since the campus is set to lose more beds than it gains in the near future, upperclassmen may not be included in room selection next year, either, Young said. Though the two new dorms on North Campus will provide about 900 beds, the university will lose around 240 beds when it closes Old Leonardtown at the end of this summer, he said. If all goes to plan, the university will lose more beds when it closes Carroll, Caroline and Wicomico halls by fall 2021, he said.

In the end, Bortel said, his thoughts on the housing situation around this university were pretty simple.

“Apartment prices are definitely too high,” Bortel said. “They gotta do something.”

 

In search of solutions

Without an increase in the number of beds the university provides, there are three main ways to drive down demand, Catlin said. The first involves this university cutting admissions numbers, which would decrease the number of enrolled students in need of beds.

In coming years, the campus is set to lose several beds on campus, Young said.

However, he said, the undergraduate admissions office has not yet set its targets for the coming academic year — and there is no guarantee that enrollment at the university won’t continue to grow.

The second way, Catlin said, would be for students to start commuting en masse.

The third way — and the most feasible, Catlin said — would be to play the long game; attract developers to College Park, allow them to build more student housing and wait for supply to catch up to demand.

“If you build a lot of new stuff, that makes it harder to raise the price on the old stuff,” Catlin said.

There are at least two student housing developments in the works right now, Catlin said — one of them, by the Gilbane Development Company, is in progress near the College Park Metro; another one, by Greystar Real Estate Partners, is being considered at the shopping center that includes Marathon Deli and Krazi Kebob.

Greystar representatives have estimated that beds in its complex will cost around $1,500 each, a price that has garnered criticism from many students.

There is also an apartment building planned for the former site of Quality Inn and Plato’s Diner, but it’s geared toward attracting “permanent residents” — not students.

College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn said Prince George’s County has recently begun looking into the region’s affordable housing needs. But Catlin said it’s unlikely that College Park will soon see new student housing developments more affordable than existing options that offer students shared bedrooms for lower rents, like University Club, a complex farther from campus where beds in a shared 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom apartment can cost $539 a month.

“If you’re going to keep your rent under $800 or $900 a month, that’s probably what you have to do, or you have to be part of a group house,” Catlin said.

Though it might drive vacancy rates up in the long term, waiting for supply to catch up with demand won’t help students who are struggling to pay for housing now, Catlin said.

Sophomore Will Cervi, an information science major who lives in The View, renewed his lease for the coming academic year; and when he did, he said, his rent increased to $1,075 — $60 more per month than what he paid this year.

“It really just seems like they’re making themselves very much less … accessible to students every single year,” Cervi said.

There are currently a few options for students who can’t afford to live in apartment complexes. Co-operative Housing at the University of Maryland aims to provide students with affordable housing and community by helping members live in houses and taking part in shared meals and chores.

Sharing rent on houses with a group of four or more people has also proven effective in driving down rents for several students, like Bortel, who said he pays around $700 per month in rent.

However, there’s still no clear answer on how to best help students currently struggling to pay their rent.

“It’s extremely troubling to me,” Cervi said. “I have, obviously, a fair amount of privilege and financial security behind me to support me through … paying this ridiculous amount of money, but a lot of people don’t have [that] and, so what’re they supposed to do?”

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