by Stephen Messinger
Higher education was facing a long and growing list of challenges – climate adaptation, reduced funding, a dwindling student pool, and inequality – before the emergence of a global pandemic. Despite the difficulty of these issues and the complexity of these institutions, campuses remain well suited to find solutions if they harness their collective powers of ingenuity, experimentation, technological development, and collaboration.
One of the most prominent issues is housing affordability. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers a household to be cost burdened if it spends more than 30% of its income on housing and severely cost-burdened if it spends more than 50%. In 2019, according to The State of the Nation’s Housing report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, nearly one-third of all U.S. households were cost-burdened, and about one quarter were severely cost-burdened. “This isn’t just a devastating trend, but rather a national public health crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley in the foreword of the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach report. Researchers have also introduced the term housing insecurity to encompass a broader range of housing challenges, such as homelessness, residential instability, and overcrowding.
The issue of affordability is also apparent on college and university campuses. According to the Princeton Review’s 15-year survey of more than 177,000 prospective students and their families, the top two greatest concerns are accumulating significant, long-term student debt and not being able to afford the college of their choice. As school costs have risen in every category, the cost of college housing in particular has increased substantially over the last generation, with costs of room and board more than doubling that of inflation since 1980. Urban schools, specifically, feel the burden, with notoriously high rents, exacerbated by the delicate – often unbalanced – effect of college students saturating the local housing market, thereby skewing costs, pricing, and other metrics for their local communities. The Boston Planning & Development Agency Research Division reported in Boston by the Numbers 2018, for example, that more than 10% of the nearly 700,000 residents of the city of Boston are college students. Of those 80,000 students, 30,000 live off-campus, in the city – placing pressure on its housing stock and driving prices up for everyone.
Although student housing in urban areas typically receives the most attention around housing, suburban and rural campuses are not immune to this growing problem. In fact, recent studies suggest that the issue of housing insecurity for college students exists everywhere. In a 2015 report, Hungry to Learn, Hope Lab found that 11% of students at the University of Wisconsin in 2014 experienced some form of housing insecurity in the previous year. The survey goes on to highlight how those least suited to protect themselves are disproportionately affected and exposes the clear correlation between insecurities and academic performance and graduation rates.
Many colleges and universities are struggling to address affordable housing needs due to an increasingly diverse student population and steady declines in funding. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center report, A Rising Share of Undergraduates Are from Poor Families, Especially at Less Selective Colleges, 31% of enrolled college students in 2015-16 were in poverty, up 10 percentage points since 1996. Meanwhile, state funding for public colleges is down 13% in the past ten years.
Now more than ever, institutions are looking to their peers in the private sector, designers, and contractors to address housing insecurity and offer affordable housing strategies. They are trying to be innovative, to be nimble, to experiment, and to flip the problem upside down. As institutions of higher learning should, they are learning and applying what they learn to their portfolios of existing housing stock and future projects. What has become apparent is that this challenge is so deep, so complicated, so nuanced that there cannot be a single monolithic solution. Possible solutions must be examined and applied where appropriate for specific institutions, locations, and populations.
So what are colleges and universities doing? Well, anything and everything they can. While the problem is bigger than ever, campuses are identifying strategies for success and recognizing individuals in a variety of roles who are doing their part to make a difference.
At the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, students who live on campus for at least two years are twice as likely to graduate as those who stay on campus only one year. To encourage students to stay on campus, the university now offers a series of incentives to second-year students: waived early arrival fees, priority room selection, and a Student Success Scholarship with a discounted rate for the second year. The campus housing program also offers a wide range of options to suit the needs of their diverse student population, including different housing styles at various price points.
Northern Iowa, like most institutions, has experienced a fluctuation in enrollment based on a wide and sometimes unpredictable market. The university architect, Jose Luis San Miguel, sees the possible imbalance year after year as an opportunity to be nimble and to adjust the housing stock with smaller improvements and renovations instead of large-scale, slow-moving new construction. In addition to keeping housing prices competitive with market rates and offering financial incentives to students for living on campus, they try to work with existing housing stock; if enrollment goes down for a semester or two, they might consolidate and do a major renovation to better suit student needs.
Tecnológico de Monterrey (also Monterrey Tec or Tec), which serves almost 100,000 students across 25 cities in Mexico, has an unparalleled menu of campus living opportunities for an extremely diverse group of students. While Tec currently is embarking on residential projects on many campuses, university leadership crafted a bold and revolutionary vision for their flagship Monterrey city campus, dubbed DistritoTec.
Developed in conjunction with the local community, DistritoTec is described on its website as “an urban regeneration initiative that drives and promotes Tecnológico de Monterrey together with local citizens, organizations, and authorities.” As part of the formation of DistritoTec, and in coordination with the master planning initiative, Tec is aiming to create a dense, multifaceted campus center harnessing the major strengths of the surrounding community. This is happening in tandem with local industries and businesses, mixing students into a whirlpool of academia focused on technology and entrepreneurship.
To make this district a reality, the school needed to drastically increase the percentage of students living on campus and co-locate residence halls within this newly defined hub. This required efficiency of construction, higher density, and a business model that will attract students at all price points. In response, Tec is exploring micro units with a high percentage of double occupancy for first-year students. This micro unit type model brought the building cost and bedroom rent down, all while offering higher quality and great amenities that will allow them to remain competitive with the surrounding market.
Thomas Cordonnier, the head of global housing and hospitality at Tec, framed this challenge as an opportunity. He knows that, to achieve this vision, they must work diligently with the design and construction teams to be as efficient as possible without sacrificing design integrity. By considering many scenarios and dynamic factors, they hope to achieve a beautiful, comfortable, safe, and efficient building that students can afford.
Higher education as an industry prides itself on creating a collaborative, open environment that values facts, data, and truth. Yet this collegial openness doesn’t always cross over to a housing strategy that operates in the interest of maintaining a competitive advantage over peer institutions. That said, many schools in fact do share openly, creating a rising tide that lifts all boats. As this is done more frequently, and with more rigor, the result can be system-wide gains on affordable housing.
David Damon, a principal at Perkins and Will architects, has long considered benchmarking a central tenet of understanding housing on campuses. He and his team use data collection to help peer institutions make smart decisions. “We use benchmarking to help institutions understand their market, see what peer institutions are doing, and make informed decisions,” he says. “The metrics – unit sizes, proportional ratios of support spaces, and intentional unique qualities – lead to a story that helps universities tailor solutions to their needs.” This collection and processing of information leads to improved intangible outcomes on projects that go beyond construction costs and square footages. “We try to share useful information at the right moment – just when the client needs it,” Damon says. If ever there were a moment to share information and experience to help housing professionals address the challenge of housing affordability, this is the moment.
Ruben Canedo is the chair of the University of California Berkeley’s Basic Needs Committee, which aims to facilitate “ongoing economic, food and housing justice for all UC Berkeley community members no matter who they are or where they come from.” Part of a larger partnership with the Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, UCB’s Basic Needs Center aims squarely at affordability by developing an expanding network of support systems and student services that helps vulnerable populations navigate the challenges of food, housing, and finances. Whether students need to balance their budgets or establish food security, helping them reduce their vulnerabilities improves their lives, strengthens the community, and alleviates stresses that sometimes permeate a campus.
As a former student at UC Berkeley, Canedo witnessed “many students skipping meals in order to survive in one of the most expensive college towns in the country.” Canedo was not surprised by results of the 2016 UCB survey, which were released in a report (Global Food Initiatives and Food Housing and Security at the University of California) highlighting the fact that 44% of undergraduates experienced food insecurity and 5% of all students experienced housing insecurity. Prepared for this, he and his colleagues at Basic Needs launched a food pantry in 2014 that, for example, allows students on the honor system to take five nonperishable food items twice a month, among other benefits. This program, along with other parallel ones within the UC system, speaks volumes to the broader community and makes an impact where it matters most – by putting students’ health, safety, and welfare above all else and aiming to provide what they refer to as a Basic Needs Secure Campus.
What can be learned from these ideas? The takeaway is that colleges and universities are more than a microcosm of the world. They are a place for emerging generations to learn, to explore, to experiment. They serve a significant portion of our population, and they are socioeconomic engines for our communities. They lead by example, build upon strengths, and offer new ideas that can have more impact. Yes, this conversation matters to colleges and universities, but it also matters to everyone. Institutions of higher education are uniquely positioned to lead the charge, testing and perfecting innovative solutions to the housing affordability crisis that can be applied nationally and beyond. Administrators, designers, educators, students, and members of the community have a role in creating, improving, and supporting housing affordability. Together, they can make a difference.
Stephen Messinger has been a project architect at Perkins and Will since 2014. A graduate of the Boston Architectural College in Massachusetts, he leads the Sustainable Steering Committee at Perkins and Will’s Boston studio. Among his projects, Messinger designed the first purpose-built living-learning community at Keene State College in New Hampshire.