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More student housing in Duluth — but is it affordable?

Bluestone Flats, while not considered student-oriented housing, is among the newer housing options available to college students in Duluth. (News Tribune file photo)

Although living in West Duluth with his dad might not be the most convenient housing option for a junior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Tate Seeler said it saves him from having to otherwise spend all his earnings from his part-time job on rent.

Instead, he is using that cash to focus on paying for school.

“I would’ve had to take out loans for sure,” Seeler said, if he was not living with his dad.

With three colleges and about 20,000 students in the Duluth area, housing availability for college students has been a hot-button issue for the past several years. Students, landlords and city officials seem to be on different pages.

In fall 2010, an influx of students forced UMD and the College of St. Scholastica to house students in a motel for a time. The city changed zoning requirements in neighborhoods adjacent to campus in 2012, said Keith Hamre, director of city planning and construction services, in order to accommodate the need for rentals near campus.

Jeremy Leiferman, director of Housing and Residence Life at UMD, said after freshman year, most students move off campus; 50 percent of UMD’s sophomore students live on-campus while the majority of junior and senior students live off-campus, he said.

“As students move through their collegiate career, they tend to move off-campus,” Leiferman said. “Those students are figuring out their independence and wanting to try out living on their own.”

This fall UMD’s housing options are near maximum capacity with about 3,000 students spread between the university’s five on-campus residence halls and five apartment buildings, Leiferman said.

Bob Ashenmacher, St. Scholastica’s director of communications, said CSS is at 96 percent occupancy for this academic year, with no options left for male students. Maximum capacity is 962 students.

And the rental market off-campus is tight, too. Barbara Montee, president of the Duluth Landlord Association, said most millennials are not buying houses, causing a national trend of a growing need for rentals.

“There’s a huge need for rentals of all kinds across the city,” she said. “It’s a tight market — not just for students but for everybody.”

According to a study done by the City of Duluth in March 2012 called the Higher Education Small Area Plan, the estimated student population in Duluth is about 20,000 between UMD, CSS and Lake Superior College, with 16,000 of those students seeking off-campus housing.

The Higher Education Small Area Plan sought ways the city could balance the needs of its various communities: colleges, students, businesses and residents. The city hired a consultant to conduct residential and commercial market analysis in a 6-square-mile area of Duluth with the highest concentration of college students. UMD and CSS were at the center of that study area.

“Despite a large concentration of college students within parts of the Higher Education Area, there is a lack of student-oriented amenities such as retail, services and housing accessible for convenient use,” the 2012 study states.

Hamre said the study’s findings helped lead to the construction of more student-dedicated housing. Duluth remains in need of more affordable housing, he added, but he said he believes the city has met demands for student housing.  

“There’s been enough rental units available in and near campus,” Hamre said. “There seems to be an adequate supply.”

The problem for many students is the available housing close to campus may not be overly affordable for them, said Mike Peller, owner of Gables & Ivy Real Estate in Duluth.

Peller said he rents about 40 properties near UMD and CSS. The price of real estate increases the closer the property is to campus, he said, making monthly rent more expensive.

“The closer you get, the more it costs,” he said.

Mark Lambert, owner of Campus Park Townhomes and Villas, Boulder Ridge Luxury Apartments, Summit Ridge Luxury Apartments and BlueStone Lofts and Flats, said he thinks the housing market is in the beginning stages of being oversaturated.

According to the city’s 2015 Housing Indicator Report, 40 percent of Duluth households are rentals. The report also stated that 2015 saw the highest number of new housing units since 2006.

Campus Park, Boulder Ridge and Summit Ridge are student-dedicated housing, Lambert said. Campus Park and Boulder Ridge house 90 to 95 percent students, Lambert said, while Summit Ridge houses 50 percent student tenants. Lambert said he does not consider BlueStone Lofts and Flats to be student-dedicated housing.

While there may have been student-housing issues in the past, Lambert said, there is a delicate balance between providing enough housing and too much.

“This year is the first year we’ve had some vacancy issues,” Lambert said, adding that Campus Park is 20 percent vacant. “This year students should be able to find housing.”

Is it affordable?

Although there is housing available for students, the question remains: is the available housing affordable for them?

According to the 2015 Housing Indicator Report, monthly rent has increased city-wide over the past few years; the report notes that it’s an issue that disproportionately affects people of color. The average rent in 2010 was $713 per month, the report states, but in 2015 the average monthly rent was $851.

But what’s considered a monthly affordable rent for a median-income household in Duluth in 2015 hovered at $550, according to the report, leaving a $300 gap between what the typical Duluth resident may be able to afford, and the average rent option.

“The gap between average rent and what median income renter households can afford continues to increase,” the report states. “With rents rising and the incomes of households that rent going down, more and more households are cost burdened.”

Lambert said rents in his student-dedicated housing — the Campus Park, Boulder Ridge and Summit Ridge developments — generally range between high $400s to low $600s per bedroom, with many units having two, three or more bedrooms.

“I think that we provide a good value for the students,” Lambert said.

No matter what an apartment may rent for, though, other rising costs — tuition, books, groceries — mean some students have to spend more time working and less time studying, or rely on family and friends.

UMD sophomores Alexis Bradley and Lizzie Richter said most rentals near campus are in what they consider a reasonable range of $375-$450 per person. But Bradley and Richter both said they could not afford their current living situation if not for the financial support from family. Bradley, who is searching for a job, is living off her savings.

Richter, who lives in a house on Dunedin Avenue, said she pays $450 per month for rent, utilities included. She said she is willing to pay more to live in proximity to campus.

“It’s a seven-minute walk (to campus) so it’s a pretty good deal,” Richter said.

Austin Reid, a UMD junior who lives with Seeler and his dad in West Duluth, said holding a job while being a full-time student is unrealistic for him because of time constraints. Instead of forcing a job into his already-full schedule, he said he was fortunate enough to be able to pay a lower amount than most students for a higher-quality place.

He’s seen poor-quality rentals for college students in the campus neighborhoods.

“Even what’s affordable (for students) is just junky,” Reid said. “We have limited selection in what’s quality housing.”

He said some of his friends who live in student neighborhoods have had their cars broken into and vandalized.

Rachel Heiber, a UMD senior and senator in the UMD Student Association, said it is difficult for students to pay for housing because many students work entry-level jobs where they make minimum wage. On top of that, some students simply don’t have time for a job to make enough cash for higher rent.

“You have to use your rent money sometimes in lieu of groceries. We’re all in debt. We’re all struggling,” she said. “School is a full-time job.”

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