Dynamics affecting affordability in UT housing policy

Ethan Smith, Contributer

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

I believe the root causes of the student affordability housing crisis has to do with the ability of West Campus developers and their representatives to convince the University that they can properly house students in a manner symbiotic to the University’s mission. However, given that these are for-profit entities, they do not have a mission centered around student well-being. By punting on the housing issue for so long, UT has been able to concentrate on prestige projects such as an art museum, a new medical school, and now a microprocessor factory which attempts to leverage federal CHIPS dollars. 

UT would do well to take a strategic pause on prestige projects and get their house in order on the basic value proposition of attending the University. This means tackling housing costs.  Otherwise, UT will not be a good place for future state investment relative to other higher education institutions statewide. To prepare, the University must seek a greater number of beds under its operational control, which means a strategic pivot in housing policy. It also means we need land suitable for student housing and a sustained advocacy effort.  

There is also the issue that on-campus housing is quite expensive — tracked to the private market. This is a countervailing force to the University’s equity commitment, including the Texas Advance Commitment, Pell Grants and TEXAS Grants. The University has been dealing with the loss of formula funding for decades now. This has created pressure to use auxiliary budgets such as the Housing and Dining budget for general operational purposes. With the help of the Board of Regents, I believe it is possible to better realign housing and equity policy. We must find a way for the incentives here to make housing less expensive, not more.   

The greatest opportunity the University and students who wish to advocate for affordability have has to do with getting involved in the ongoing discussions about the future of the Brackenridge Tract. The Brackenridge Tract is extremely valuable (it was estimated in 2009 that it would cost multiple billions to redevelop), and there is a fiduciary duty that it must benefit UT-Austin specifically. It is not suitable for many university purposes, so I have proposed setting up a land-for-land trade with the City of Austin. 

There are many stakeholders who would support this, and I believe a confluence of stakeholders could serve as an effective shorthand for what is truly a very complicated issue. This centers on advocacy to maintain the Lions Municipal Golf Course (MUNY), a registered civil rights landmark which has served as a home to the largely affluent community of golfers for nearly 100 years. My current advocacy revolves around leveraging a lease extension on “MUNY” to acquire land which may be contractually guaranteed to develop as graduate housing.

What will become of West Campus? Due to its proximity to downtown, I believe the future of West Campus is not centered on students at all, certainly not on affordability. Once Project Connect connects West Campus to downtown, I believe it will be incentivized to develop as high end luxury housing for downtown workers. This is known as the “town and gown”, a high end neighborhood close to a major university. 

I believe this is the proper model. It allows the natural developer energy to continue, but it means UT must take greater responsibility for housing its students. UT must capture some of the high-end market segment for students who can afford such accommodations and use the profits to fuel scholarships for less wealthy students. This is best for UT’s long-term value proposition.  

Smith is an Austin native and a 2021 Human Dimensions of Organization UT graduate. His senior thesis was titled “On-Campus Housing Capacity Expansion as an Anticipatory Model for a post-Students for Fair Admissions Equity Commitment at The University of Texas”.