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WVU’s student housing vacancies spark concern

Daily Athenaeum graphic by Nick Rhoads
Daily Athenaeum graphic by Nick Rhoads

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The term “student housing” at WVU has been redefined.

The phrase now refers to more than standard, quiet dorm units like Towers and Summit Hall, and extends to University Apartments, like Vandalia, College Park, University Place and University Park—the latter two being the brightly lit residence/shopping complexes that sprouted up in Sunnyside and Evansdale over the past two years.

These apartments combined hold 2,205 beds students can rent (not including the dorm units in University Park), but 35 percent of these remain unfilled as of Fall 2016, according to FOIA documents obtained by The DA.

“Our occupancy rates currently stand strong, of course we would like to see an increase in numbers, but we were pretty happy to see that a lot of the students had become interested in University apartments,” said Corissa Greer, communications specialist for WVU real estate.

The current occupancy rate (65 percent) is a bit worse than that of 2015, when 67 percent of the beds were filled.

West Virginia University still stands as an outlier compared to colleges nationally, where the norm is a shortage of beds not a surplus, as can be seen in reports from Stanford, Miami University, San Francisco State University, the University of Arkansas and others.

At other schools, students are placed on wait lists and housed in overflow rooms as they wait for openings into these buildings, but at WVU, students are pursued by University leasing agents from their first semesters on campus so they are educated and aware of all the housing WVU can offer in post-dorm living.

With University apartments an option for all students expect first-time freshman, WVU is now a direct competitor for independent, private real estate agencies in town, which target the same demographic.

“This has been a good business in Morgantown for many years because the University has increased enrollment. (But) anytime you have a good business, it always gets complex as time goes on,” said David Kelly, owner and operator of Kelly Rentals in Morgantown. “When I got into this business, (the University) promised to never house anyone other than freshmen, and they’ve broken that promise.”

The biggest problem, Kelly said, is that with all the University operated apartments, corporate housing complexes (Campus Evolution, The Ridge, Copper Beech, etc) and private housing in Morgantown, there are more beds available throughout town than there are students to fill them.

Because of this, the market must adapt, which can have unintended consequences as businesses try to remain relevant on a playing field that Kelly believes has been tilted in the University’s favor since it opened College Park in 2015.

Through public-private partnerships between the University and companies in Morgantown, WVU is able to construct and operate all the University apartment buildings (except for Vandalia), without paying property taxes or other additional fees a private company would have to pay independently. The partnerships are meant to allow WVU to build without the hindrance of a debt due to the projects, since the private companies cover the fees in return for long-term revenue.

For Kelly, waving these fees gives WVU an automatic leg up since taxes and related charges are the “number one expense” for someone with a business like his.

University apartments have many advantages for students—they’re fairly new, furnished for the most part, close to campus, managed by University staff, have hired security and up-to-date technology, to name a few, Greer said. But, what the private sector lacks in style, it makes up for in prices, which are consistently lower for monthly rent compared to University apartments.

“A lot of people just can’t afford them,” Kelly said.

Rental companies throughout Morgantown have had to stagnate their prices to stay competitive. Since raising rent is not an option, Kelly said some companies cut corners in other places, like repainting walls, recarpeting floors, and the general maintenance necessary to keep a building presentable, and that feeds into a problem many in Morgantown are already aware of; the standards (or sometimes lack thereof) many off-campus residencies are held to.

While the University currently has the potential to house just 26 percent of the student population—leaving 74 percent open to the private sector—Kelly is still agitated at the University’s role in Morgantown housing, and does not think the school will remain content with 35 percent of its available beds unrented.

Inevitably in the future, Kelly said, sophomores are going to be pushed into University-mandated housing. This rumor has been whispered around the University, but it doesn’t seem to be founded in any truth at this time.

Chris MacDonald, executive director of housing and residence, said a lot of planning, analysis and conversation would be necessary between the University, different boards around campus and students before anything was seriously considered

“We don’t even currently have enough beds to do that if we wanted to,” Greer said. “We are happy with what we have and we’re looking to make those good environments for students.”

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