Blacksburg Tapping the Brakes on Student Housing

Student-oriented housing near Virginia Tech. (Photo credit: Roanoke Times.)

While the People’s Republic of Charlottesville grapples with mandatory parking (see previous post), the People’s Republic of Blacksburg is wrestling with the problem of privately developed student housing. Apparently, too many developers want in on the opportunities created by expanding enrollment at Virginia Tech. Town Council voted 7 to 0 recently, according to the Roanoke Times, “to be more selective whenever it receives requests for student housing projects.”

We commonly hear how the private sector is uninterested in building affordable housing. Yet in Blacksburg we see local government dampening developer enthusiasm for meeting the demand for student housing (much of which, I assume, falls under the rubric of “affordable.”) It is not clear whom Town Council sees as picking up the slack.

“It is extremely lucrative to build purpose-built student housing. It’s so lucrative that people will come in with these very large plans,” said Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith. “We have people expressing interest monthly.”

The problem is Town Council doesn’t necessarily want developers to build where the developers want to build. The town’s comprehensive plan has designated certain areas — such as a district called “Downtown Northwest” — as conducive to dense and upscale student housing. The recent student-housing resolution also called for redevelopment of older housing units in “student-oriented areas of town where supporting infrastructure is already available and fewer lifestyle conflicts with adjacent neighborhoods are likely to occur.” But those pesky developers keep coming up with other proposals.

In other parts of the state, the “affordable housing” is often entangled with the issue of race. Opposition to affordable housing is widely assumed to be motivated in part by an animus toward blacks and minorities. That’s not the case in Blacksburg, where the student body is 2/3 white and, it’s safe to say, the academical village of Virginia Tech skews to the liberal/progressive side of the ideological spectrum. For some inexplicable reason, though, Blacksburg residents owning houses in quiet neighborhoods of single-family dwellings don’t like living in proximity to large numbers of students. I suspect they also find housing and landscaping built to fit a price range that students can afford to be architecturally bland and unattractive.

I’m not saying there are easy answers here. I don’t envy Town Council members who, caught between a rock and a hard place, are trying to sort through the competing interests at stake. But perhaps we can dispense with the idea that the private sector isn’t interested in building affordable housing. The real problem is that neighbors — and the officials they elect — don’t like the developers’ proposals.

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7 responses to “Blacksburg Tapping the Brakes on Student Housing”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    After perusing some of the on-line ads for sublets for privately-owed “student oriented” housing, I would hardly call this “affordable housing.” For the smaller units, the rents run about $1,000-$1,200 per month; for larger units, the rents run above $2,000/month.

    The permanent residents of Blacksburg understandably don’t want student housing, with the attendant traffic, comings and goings at all hours, and weekend parties, built in their neighborhoods.

    I know this is old-fashioned, but what happened to the idea of students living in dorms?

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “I would hardly call this “affordable housing.” For the smaller units, the rents run about $1,000-$1,200 per month; for larger units, the rents run above $2,000/month.”

    Yes, crazy, is it not. Yet American’s don’t have enough money to build affordable housing. Truth is we don’t want it built.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Blacksburg – the town – is chock-a-block with home apartments. It’s like a cottage industry! Attics, basements, garages, etc… and they are “affordable” and “walkable” to/from the campus but what is going on now is going to generate both traffic and parking problems and the townsfolks are justifiably not keen on the idea.

    1. In one breath, you say that “affordable” housing isn’t desirable because it creates traffic congestion, in effect justifying the zoning codes and comprehensive plans that restrict development of such housing.. But in another (in comments on other posts), you deny that zoning codes or comp plan restrict the supply of housing at all!

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    no I did not I said that the local folks were justifiably not too keen on the idea of increased traffic and students looking for parking near the school.

    and actually this is very similar to the problem of folks living in NoVa and having the roads chock-a-block from folks commuting from afar to jobs in NoVa.

    In this case, instead of someone proposing apartments within walking distance to Tech – they are proposing housing some distance away that is not really “walkable” and autos will be used.

    In addition to the auto-centric, some are saying that they are also not affordable – right?

    Finally – is there something that Blacksburg itself DID or did not do that affected the decision of where the new apartments could locate AND how much they should charge?

    So a question. If Blacksburg had said that they would NOT approve the apartments unless they were within walking distance AND affordable what would you have said about the govt role and it’s effect and how the “market” might have done “better”?

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: affordable housing and “dorms”.

    I think Ed Risse had a list of what he called “core confusing words”
    and “affordable housing” is one of them in that it’s used to mean different things in different contexts and the reference to “dorm” captures this well in my view.

    Putting 2 or 3 people in a room is much, much, much MORE affordable that trying to get 3 or more rooms for one or two people then one step further – a 3000 square foot house for 2 or 3 people.

    All of these various configurations are argued in the “affordable” realm.

    But keep this particular thread to Blacksburg “affordability” and “dorms” versus private sector “student housing”.

    So I’m curious if the private sector proposals are standard generic apartments or are they more like dorms with limited kitchen and bathroom facilities such that they are not suitable for non-student housing – much like one might think if someone claimed that a Dorm could be re-purposed as an apartment building for non-students just by renting those rooms as-is – as “apartments”.

    so dorms are by their nature – minimal housing… roof, heat, water but by no means commodious and microwave ovens and mini-fridges are what does “food” and any kind of non-disposalable eating utensils and dishes get washed in the bathrooms or perhaps these days there is a central kitchen-type space at some.

    Okay = SO…. when it comes to local residents and their feelings about new development for student housing – would it make a difference if a private sector proposed – within walking distance of the campus – “housing” that was “affordable” because it was more akin to ‘dorms’ than everyday generic apartments?

    is this a legitimate way to frame this issue to put a focus on what we actually mean when we say “affordable” for students – as well as address the issue of having students on foot walking to a nearby campus versus students driving cars and looking for parking because their “housing” is too far away – even if it were “dorm” style?

    ‘so how about it? Would a proposal to build a private sector “dorm” near campus be a different thing that a standard apartment complex 3 miles away?

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