The focus of housing expansion should stay on affordability

Ethan Smith , Contributor

Editor’s Note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community. 

Students and alumni alike rejoiced at the news that UT would be adding Dobie Mall to its residency portfolio.  A sustained focus on affordable housing could be an agreeable investment vehicle for addressing UT’s access, affordability and campus culture issues. Best of all, such a policy makes long-term sense in strictly financial terms, which would be a prerequisite for consideration by President Jay Hartzell and the Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife. Embracing the mantra “all gas, no brakes,” UT should double down on its focus on affordability and residence expansion.  

The focus, however, must remain on affordability. Strategically, the purchase of Dobie is in stark contrast to the recent addition of 2400 Nueces. 2400 Nueces is owned by the University ands costs residents almost $1,600 per month for a one-bedroom with no meal plan.  Although it is highly profitable, there are better methods for directly addressing equity issues through housing.  

Investment in West Campus buttresses the prices of that entire market, making housing more expensive for everyone. Since developers have oversaturated the market, UT should allow the natural market rates to return to parity on their own, rather than allowing a sustained lobbying effort to draw state dollars into the ecosystem. This is the advantage to a strategy of expanding the total number of beds on campus, which is the one facet the Dobie acquisition does not address. An eight-figure remodeling of Dobie would raise the property values of the overall ecosystem, including West Campus.  By contrast, expanding capacity on campus leads to the market rate coming down in West Campus, something beneficial to all UT students and their parents.  

Developer abuses in West Campus have been long documented — it does not support an academic environment to run part of your building as an Airbnb, such as was the case at Dobie and is currently the case at other West Campus properties. In the past, developers have crammed income-restricted students on bunk beds in single units to meet their “affordable housing” incentives.  The University should not work with developers to develop affordable housing because this goal is an obstacle to its primary way of making money. Affordable housing expansion must be accomplished in-house. Given his real estate acumen, Chairman Eltife’s direct involvement would ensure the best possible outcome on affordability.

 Campus culture is improved as students who live on campus can join more student groups and engage with each other to a higher degree. The only way to address equity in the long term is to bring a greater number of beds under UT’s operational control.

Although campus is landlocked, there are many places UT has previously identified as good spots to build new housing. The best locations are UA9, Clark Field and surrounding the Thompson Conference Center. Whitis Court is a possibility, as is tearing down several existing dorms, but these are the least cost-effective methods of expanding housing and would hamstring UT’s ability to complete actual expansion, much to the delight of developers.  These locations all have plans from the 2015 Student Life Master Plan and are likely ready to be greenlit. 

One additional location, the HealthSouth building, would be incredibly valuable to acquire. This site would best be used as new faculty housing and graduate student housing. This would solve upcoming phasing issues with the Brackenridge tract and ensure that the grad housing built in East Campus is an actual expansion of capacity, not merely replacement housing for the soon-to-be demolished housing. The acquisition of HealthSouth would then facilitate the redoing of the Gateway tract for maximum expansion.  

Ethan Smith is a 2021 human dimensions of organization honors graduate and was last year’s Student Government Housing Policy Advocacy co-director.  

 

Editors Note: A previous version of this submission incorrectly stated that 2400 Nueces was a public/private partnership, and that half of Dobie was run as an Airbnb. The Texan regrets these errors.