Columbia, Missouri is a college town. It was founded with education in mind — particularly the kind of education that attracts all kinds of Missourians. For the last 150 years, three institutions of higher learning — Columbia College, Stephens College and MU — have each made an irreversible impact on our city.
It would seem, then, that City Council would be receptive to the needs and wants of the nearly 40,000 postsecondary students living within city limits. However, the dismal and embarrassing state of student housing in Columbia today gives us the impression that city administrators place profit and expansion above helping provide its residents — all of them — with a good quality place to live.
This fall, three new “luxury" student housing complexes will open in Columbia: Aspen Heights, The Domain and The Lofts at 308 Ninth. Each has some pretty nifty amenities, including pools, wood floors, and even (in The Domain’s case) a full-swing golf simulator. Because of these features, each charges above-average rent.
These three add to the handfuls of similar “luxury" student housing complexes that have opened over the last decade, mostly in the Grindstone area a few miles south of campus. Most were planned and are operated by national corporations, which often employ questionable construction practices to get them up and occupied before the next “hot property” complex is built.
Students who lease at such places pay higher rents for granite countertops, rooftop pools and in-house tanning salons; however, shoddy construction is often part of the deal. More students living far off-campus can add to the growing sense of detachment and “commuter-ism” at our university — driving to class and back each day and not spending as much time contributing to our campus’ social activity.
Meanwhile, the valuable land around campus, particularly to the north and east, has many problems in relation to student housing. Much of it is too expensive for most students. If it is affordable, it’s in extremely high demand or unavailable to students due to reticent landlords. If it is affordable and available, it often lacks modern amenities or has fallen into disrepair — East Campus, the traditional heart of off-campus student housing, is crumbling.
Simply put, the problem is not a shortage of student housing. It’s a shortage of the affordable, no-frills housing close to campus that students want.
Part of the problem is the massive marketing budgets of the “luxury" student housing companies. We see all sorts of swag — hats, shirts, backpacks, water bottles emblazoned with the logos of these developments — being given out and carried around campus. If it weren't for word of mouth, it seems many freshmen would have no idea that there's off-campus housing available to them other than Aspen Heights, The Domain and the like.
But much of the blame for Columbia’s student-housing mess falls on city officials’ willingness to rubber stamp nearly every new complex that gets proposed, regardless of whether it’s smart growth that fills a demonstrated need, or even if it hurts longtime Columbia residents. Last year, a low-income mobile home park housing many of the city’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents was razed to make way for Aspen Heights, a national chain housing development. Now, the city is even considering tearing down the oldest and possibly the most historic building in Columbia — the Niedermeyer house at Tenth and Cherry — to make way for more of this "luxury" student housing.
To be fair, these new developments are enticing to students. They provide comfort and security to parents. There is nothing wrong with “luxury" student housing in itself. But the problem comes when there is simply too much “luxury” and not enough affordable housing close by. The city benefits from higher rents, too, but seems to miss, or ignore, the disservice that is being done to students and Columbians alike by encouraging a "red-hot" luxury apartment market too quickly and without a solid backbone. City Council and the Planning & Zoning Commission need to regulate rent prices, help restore East Campus and other housing close to campus and need to learn how to say no to development companies.
There isn’t much organized opposition to this pattern on campus, either. After losing its battle to stop Aspen Heights' development, the Missouri Students Association has stopped pursuing this issue of affordable and accessible student housing. As MU students’ primary representatives, MSA members should re-establish the special commission they created to advocate smarter housing. And students should educate themselves to be better tenants and consumers.
We are constantly building in anticipation of an ever-expanding student body. But unlike the Grindstone prairie south of campus, the university is fast approaching its carrying capacity. What will happen when our university stops admitting “record-highest” freshman classes each year? We’ll have a city full of cheaply-built, under-occupied student housing.
The city of Columbia needs to understand this and give more attention to the affordable housing around campus and less to out-of-state corporations who come in and build overvalued "luxury apartments." Columbia is a college town, not a playground for developers. It’s time to step up and make our city better.