University of Washington junior Audrey Wu has been looking for an apartment near campus for two months now. But with two weeks left before classes begin, she’s starting to despair of finding a place to live.
Many of the one-bedrooms in the University District are going for $1,200 to $1,500 a month. “I’m looking at (apartment ads) and I’m saying, this is not student housing,” Wu said. “Students can’t afford to dish this out.”
Alarmed by the accelerating pace of construction in the University District and a corresponding uptick in rents, UW student government leaders are asking the city of Seattle to include students in the city’s planning work to chart the course of development around the state’s biggest urban campus.
Nine months of rent in the University District can cost almost as much as a year of tuition. And in the coming years, with a new light-rail line opening on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast that will whisk commuters downtown in minutes, the neighborhood is expected to become denser, more appealing to young professionals — and less affordable for students.
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Even now, about a thousand new apartment units are under construction in the neighborhood, designated an “urban center” by the city and planned for denser growth. New apartments are generally more expensive than older ones.
Only about 18 percent of students on the UW-Seattle campus live in university-owned residence halls or apartments on campus. The university has historically relied on the private sector to house its students, and many also commute to school.
The overall average rent in the University District for existing apartments increased 9 percent between spring 2013 and spring 2014, to $1,181, according to Dupre+Scott, a local apartment-research firm.
If new housing is included in the calculation, the price went up 14.5 percent in one year — to $1,241 per month.
Some apartments went up by much more than that.
After rent for his two-bedroom apartment went up 57 percent this year — to $3,400 a month — student Austin Wright-Pettibone spent about eight weeks looking for another place to live.
“It was one of the more extreme examples of rent increases, but it’s symbolic of what is happening” in the neighborhood, said Wright-Pettibone, who serves on UW student government, as head of government relations. After a summer-long scramble, he and his roommate found a cheaper place on Capitol Hill.
Fiona Stefanik, a fifth-year student, also found better options outside the University District — she’ll be sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two roommates in Lake City this fall.
“Even though they’re building a lot more housing, it’s still just really expensive, because there is such a high demand,” she said.
City Councilwoman Sally Clark remembers renting a cheap — although somewhat roach-infested — apartment in the U District when she was a student there in the 1980s. She fears the new apartments clustering around the light-rail station on Brooklyn will be too expensive for students.
“More students are competing with young professionals, who have more money to spend,” she said. Clark met with students over the summer, and said they made a good case for being included in the housing strategic plan.
The city is working on a new neighborhood plan that will guide land use in the University District over the coming years. The U District Urban Design Framework could include increased height and density in the core of the neighborhood.
Students released an open letter to city leadership on Thursday, asking that the council authorize the formation of a student housing affordability task force to advise the city’s Department of Planning and Development; to place a UW student representative on the mayor’s housing affordability task force; and to work with developers to set aside funding for student-eligible affordable housing.
A spokesman for Mayor Ed Murray said the mayor plans to include a student from one of the city’s colleges or universities on its housing advisory committee.
In the letter, students said that if they aren’t included in University District planning, they’ll “either be displaced or driven further into debt by the rezoning … it is of great to concern to us when proposed plans to develop the University District threaten to increase the cost burden for students already struggling to access the University.”
Said Wright-Pettibone: “We’re already at the tipping point of what we can afford.”
Students say it’s still possible to find a room near Greek Row, in an old house that’s been cut into a bunch of smaller units, for $500 to $800 a month. The quarters are guaranteed to be cramped, the place in need of repair, and the house might not meet city codes.
But it’s cheap.
Wu, the UW junior who is looking for a place to live, has found some small apartments for as low as $800, but they seem overpriced for what they offer. In one, for example, the apartment consists of a small room and a bathroom; the kitchen is shared. Others are dirty or in a poor state of repair.
If she can’t find anything, Wu plans to move back home with her parents in Kenmore and either drive or take the bus to school.
Meanwhile, demand is also up for university-owned housing.
The UW’s housing office had an 8 percent increase in requests for on-campus housing for the coming school year. As a result, it will create 165 new triple rooms in the residence halls to accommodate the students who arrive on campus for the start of fall quarter classes, which begin Sept. 24. The university will be housing 802 more students than the residence halls and apartments were built to accommodate.
The upside? Triples are relatively cheap. A triple in McCarty Hall will cost the equivalent of about $520 a month.
UW student government leaders say they plan to reach out to student leaders at the area’s other schools — including Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University and the community colleges.
Wright-Pettibone said students have long lobbied the Legislature to keep tuition costs down. Now, they’re realizing they must talk to City Hall, too, to try to keep the housing part of the college-cost equation from rising too much.
“We shouldn’t be forced to take out a loan for tuition, and a loan for housing,” he said. “There has to be a component of being able to work our way through school again.”