KENT: Could all the new off-campus student housing in the pipeline lead to abandoned rental properties and blight in residential neighborhoods?
City Manager Dave Ruller said the city and Kent State University need to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“It’s been brewing in our collective minds for quite some time,” Ruller said.
Downtown is in the midst of a $100 million makeover, KSU has plans for a $170 million overhaul and private developers have been building an apartment complex off Summit Street, renovating the former Silver Oaks retirement complex into a student enclave, and proposing a new student community near the football stadium.
A total of 1,600 new off-campus beds for students should be in place by this fall.
But if too much new student housing causes individual rental properties to be abandoned, neighborhoods could pay a price for the building boom.
“Part of what we’re wrestling with is what exactly is the right investment” for new student housing, Ruller said. “How do we make sure we’re not creating more problems? The market seems pretty active, but if all projects in the pipeline get built, is that going to have a collateral impact? Let’s start talking about that.”
Hiring a consultant could help answer some of the questions.
“In my opinion, what we don’t have is hard data,” he said.
One thing the city and KSU hope to do this summer is to at least get a consultant to look at the area near the esplanade — the walking corridor KSU is building to connect the campus to downtown.
“We’d direct him to College Street and other streets next to the esplanade. There is good investment in this corridor and we want things to go well,” Ruller said. “It’s a good starting point.”
Beyond that, the city has some control over how much student housing is built.
“In each of the [proposed developments] that have come up in last six months, all had to go through a variance process,” Ruller said. “Density is the biggest issue [for developers] to meet because they want to put as many bodies and beds in as tight a space as possible.”
On the surface, it’s not a bad thing for students to be concentrated in their own apartment complexes.
“What we’ve learned is that the creep of rental properties into traditional neighborhoods is problematic. Mixing population segments with different hours and lifestyles doesn’t always work great next to each other,” Ruller said.
The city has little control, however, over what happens if residential rental property is abandoned.
“In a perfect world, they would go back to single-family housing,” Ruller said.
But that would be up to property owners, and there might be little motivation for them to renovate their rentals and sell them to families.
Ruller said his staff has discussed some incentives — for example, a tax abatement on property improvement if a rental is sold to a single family. The city also has general neighborhood grant programs available, offering up to $4,000 for renovating homes in targeted areas.
“We’ve tried to put some carrots out there,” Ruller said. “We’ve also put sticks out there by increasing enforcement of maintenance [laws] so there are tools that compel people to take pride in their property.”
“But so far it has been a more passive approach. Where we’re headed with our discussion is what can we do proactively, between the city and the university.”
Ruller said projects are coming at the city almost daily.
“There’s an enormous amount of development interest — a combination of the growing university, positive investment downtown and the general uptick in the economy. ... We’re trying to manage our way through it, but we’re being more reactive than I prefer.”
Gregg Floyd, KSU’s senior vice president for finance, was unavailable for extended comment on the topic. But he offered this statement:
“We are pleased by the overall magnitude of construction activity in the Kent community. While city and university leadership share concerns regarding potential impacts upon the community associated with an oversupply of student-oriented housing, the optimism reflected by these developer investments is confirming of the positive things under way in Kent.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.