Starkville — A six-month moratorium on construction of apartments is coming to a close in this Oktibbeha County town that’s home to the state’s largest university student population. As more and more students choose to live off campus, the public and private issues of balancing those housing needs with the desires of the community are sometimes at odds.
Mississippi State University (MSU) normally houses approximately 20% to 25% of its 17,000 students on campus, according to Dr. Ann Bailey, director of housing and residence life. She said freshmen, sophomores and those students who can’t afford apartments live on campus. MSU currently has 3,400 beds on campus but will build the inventory back up to the usual 4,000 to keep up with anticipated growth.
“We have a goal to approach 20,000 students by 2010 and to house 5,000 of those,” she said. “We are not in the apartment business and don’t plan to be, although we will build new student housing to have more space and privacy for students.”
Bailey said this generation of students has different expectations because families have fewer children, and those children are accustomed to having private rooms and baths.
“Everyone who can afford it gets an apartment or goes in debt for it,” she added, “and some families buy houses for their children to live in while they’re in school, especially if they have more than one child who will be in school here.”
The moratorium on building multi-family housing is in effect in the city but not the county. City aldermen voted six to one to enact the shut down last November.
Alderman-at-large Victor L. Zitta was the lone dissenting vote.
“The board perceived there were too many apartments,” he said. “There was no research, but we are doing a study after the fact.”
The city hired a consulting city planner, Shelly Johnstone of Oxford, to project needs for the next 25 years. On schedule to present her findings in the next few weeks, she said the comprehensive plan primarily covers land use, transportation, public facilities and goals and objectives. She has been working on the plan for a year. The apartment inventory was added later as a separate study but will be presented at the same time.
“The issue is to have some kind of market control,” Johnstone said. “Zoning would not have affected it. This is something different. I was asked specifically to look at the number of apartments, the supply and demand.”
A planner for 30 years, she said city officials are concerned with the theory of broken windows. That theory purports that older apartment units are left behind as newer ones are built. The abandoned properties become targets of roving bands and can be crime problems.
“It’s not a simple issue they’re dealing with. It’s a public issue as well as a private one,” she said. “There are public implications for the community. Some of it is aesthetics — no one wants it by their home — but more so, it is not wanting left-behind units.”
Johnstone said the age group of 15 to 24 makes up 50% of the city’s renters. The city wants her to determine the vacancy rate of the apartment inventory. As single-family rentals are becoming more preferred, she has had to look at total vacancies.
“Should there be a restriction on multiple family housing? If it’s restricted, does that push students into traditional neighborhoods?” she wonders. “I know for sure that we don’t have good data. There are issues of students in traditional neighborhoods.”
She will recommend that the city require landlords to register. That would allow landlords to have discussions with the city in a formal way.
“Some people think the city should let the marketplace take care of things,” she said. “Sometimes people invest in rentals as a tax writeoff so occupancy is not a concern. I want to find out if that’s the case.”
She said it’s not unusual for a college town to have apartment ownership as a cottage industry. In Starkville, it’s 60% renter occupied and 40% owner occupied. “If Starkville wants to strike more of a balance, it will have to change policies,” she said. “Moratoriums on apartments are not unusual in the state.”
Johnstone sees a trend in the college town of Oxford to convert older apartments into condominiums. She will conduct a poll with realtors to see if that’s happening in Starkville.
Zitta, a retired MSU civil engineering instructor, thinks aesthetics is part of the problem city residents have with the plethora of apartments. “Some are real small and are lined up in a row like cookie cutters,” he said. “There’s no break, and they just don’t look good. These units stand out like a sore thumb, and people rebelled.”
An MSU instructor for 30 years and an alderman for 16 years, he’s seen the ebb and flow of apartment building. “There are a lot of them here, but I like the competition of the marketplace,” he said.
Alderman Lee Beck, 26, was elected to the city board while still a student at MSU. Now the business manager for Northland Cable and Internet Company, he voted for the moratorium.
“We wanted to get multi-family building under control and know how much we have and need,” he said. “The six months of the moratorium was a time of the year that not much construction would have gone on anyway. The city needed to get a grasp of the rental property that’s available.”
Beck said homeowners were speaking up about property values depreciating, rentals encroaching on neighborhoods and the strain on the infrastructure.
“It’s good to bring in a consultant from the outside to look at this,” he said. “We need to plan better land use to protect what we have.”
MSU’s vice president for student affairs, Dr. Bill Kibler, said the university has a sense that there is a sufficient capacity in the apartment complexes in the city to accommodate the student enrollment in the near future.
“There are at least a couple of development projects that are moving forward that target students specifically, that is they are not traditional apartments but rather will offer apartment style residential living for students,” he said. “These projects will offer additional living arrangement options to upper class students who move off campus.”
Kibler said MSU is also working with the city on a proposed campus/community bus system that will enhance access to the campus for students living off campus. “We think these future developments will enhance the quality of life for our off-campus students in the future,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.