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Gentrification & Student Housing

Gentrification & Student Housing

A curious urban shift has been taking place in college and university towns across North America, as student renters are overtaking residential neighborhoods near campus. This odd phenomenon is becoming known as ‘student housing gentrification’ – the process by which luxury student housing is causing an increase in property values and rents, while simultaneously transforming neighborhoods and urban community lifestyles.

This social change is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one hand, these new high-end and high-occupancy student housing communities are delivering much needed better quality accommodations to a growing body of students. On the other hand, these student housing communities are creating what some refer to as a ‘student ghetto’ and making it much less desirable for families to live in these areas.  

This draws us to the question, what exactly is the problem with student gentrification?

At the core of the student housing gentrification problem, the opposition often rests on three main arguments. In many cases, one, two or all three of these arguments are invoked whenever student housing developments start popping up. Community groups often meet student housing developers with resistance, often citing the following concerns.

1. It turns family neighborhoods into student ghettos:

As is the case with the ‘McGill University Ghetto’, many critics of student housing gentrification fear that the proliferation of student housing will create student ghettos. They are typically characterized by neighborhoods that were once occupied primarily by families, are primarily now composed of rental homes for students. They are most commonly found in areas directly surrounding the campus. Very few families will remain living there, due to a negative stigma attached to student renters; they are typically seen as disruptive to family neighborhoods. This creates neighborhoods that appeal almost exclusively to students, as other types of tenants do not wish to live in these areas.

2. Property values sharply increase, along with rental rates:

While property values will inevitably rise, it would seem that student housing gentrification could create much sharper increases in areas surrounding the campus. This was particularly true in the case of McGill, where property prices have doubled from 2004 to 2011.  This makes it more difficult for other lower-income demographics to afford housing. In some cases, public housing was replaced by student housing, displacing lower-income renters. 

3. It pushes long-time residents out of their homes:

Tying back to the first point, as family neighborhoods become increasingly inhabited by students, current residents are either pushed out of their homes or leave on their own accord. This was the case near McMaster University for two neighborhoods in particular, Westdale and Ainslie Wood. Ainslie Wood alone saw the student population (18-24 year old residents) in this area grow from 15% in 2001 to 45% in 2012, and that number continues to grow. For a variety of reasons, this causes many long-time residents to leave; some due to rising rents and others because of an unwillingness to live near so many students.

While these are all relatively valid arguments, they often incorrectly shift the blame to students. Student housing gentrification in itself is a bit of a paradox, as one author put it, “ironically, student renters are the victims of this gentrification, as much as they are perpetrators of it.” The message delivered here is that students don’t intentionally cause gentrification and they also face problems associated with it, such as increased rents and cost of living. Students want to live in close proximity to their campuses, as location is undoubtedly the most important feature to any student housing community. Furthermore, there are often overlooked benefits that go hand-in-hand with student housing gentrification.

An example of this happened in East Athens. This community dramatically transformed itself for the better, largely due to an influx of student housing. An area once plagued by violence and crime, which many city residents would avoid at all costs, has turned around after it went through student housing gentrification. Student-oriented housing started popping up and along with it came a demographic change. The area progressively became safer and an all-around better community.

A similar scenario also took place in the United Kingdom, where in Bristol an area notorious for trouble was revitalized because of student housing gentrification. The Gloucester Road area is now home to thousands of students and it has become a much more favorable and desirable place to live. These are just two cases of many which have demonstrated that student housing gentrification isn’t always a bad thing.

Furthermore, some communities have embraced student housing and greatly benefitted from it. Waterloo, Ontario is an example of this. At one point in time, student housing in Waterloo primarily consisted of single-family homes converted into student rentals. They were often poorly maintained and created tensions between students and local residents. To deal with this gentrification, the city put a student housing plan in place which led to the development of much more purpose-built student housing. Many students started opting to live in high-rise apartments, instead of single-family homes. Derek Lobo noted studies which have shown that in Waterloo, families have started moving back into residential neighborhoods that were formerly dominated by student housing.  It seems that Waterloo found a balance and was able to adapt to student housing gentrification.

To close, the process of student housing gentrification is only coming under the microscope now and we are witnessing the impact it has had on communities, both positively and negatively.

Chris Iverson conducted one of the few detailed research projects on student housing gentrification in Minnesota, which had some very fascinating findings. Iverson refers to this type of gentrification as ‘studentification’, and goes on to say, “Unlike traditional gentrification situations where increased housing units and density attracts more population, studentification only attracts a specific, already present population and skews the surrounding market.” Iverson believes that the influx of new luxury student housing would cause rents to drop in older housing units and vacancy rates would rise. Only time will reveal the benefits of student housing gentrification, but regardless of where you stand on this issue, it’s important to realize that gentrification isn’t necessarily a bad thing in many cases.

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