Off-campus student housing is no longer what it used to be – and that has created several quandaries for local policy makers contending with density, zoning and student safety in north Charlotte.
Developers around UNC Charlotte have steadily been building rent-by-the-bedroom apartments targeting college-age millennials seeking 21st century perks. Often paid for by “helicopter parents,” these units provide private bathrooms and bedrooms, communal kitchen and living room space, volleyball and basketball courts, high-speed Internet connectivity, cable television, swimming pools, clubhouses and fitness centers.
Sean Langley, assistant director for off-campus and volunteer outreach at UNCC, said only 5,300 to 5,500 of the school’s 27,000 students reside on campus. More than 15 nearby private developments either have been built or are under development to cater to the rest, he said.
Crescent Communities is nearing completion on Circle University City, a 187-unit, 546-bedroom development. The Charlotte-based company has used the word ”innovative” to describe the project, saying the students who live there will be able to use a study and lounge area, game room and rooftop terrace overlooking the college.
Amenities include a blow-up movie screen and projector, a pool with tanning ledge and underwater speakers, iPod docking stations, fire pits and free Starbucks coffee in the lobby. Apartments are furnished, with wood plank-style floors, granite counter tops, and washer and dryer included.
“We’ve found student housing has evolved,” said Darren Pierce, director of asset management at Crescent. “Students want something unique. They are looking for concierge services and amenities.”
As do most student-housing developers, Crescent rents Circle University City units by the bedroom. “It guarantees that each individual has (an individual) lease,” Pierce said. Subsequently, roommates will not be held responsible if one of them doesn’t pay the rent.
The practice, which hasn’t escaped the notice of Charlotte City Council, can also prove profitable. A one-bedroom, one-bath unit, marketed as “You – the Ultimate in Solitude,” rents for $915 to $975 per month, depending on the layout. A two-bedroom, two-bath unit costs between $635 and $864 per bedroom per month, according to the University City website. A four-bedroom, four-bath unit runs between $570 and $660 per individual per month.
Parking, safety concerns
In late 2012, the City Council requested that Charlotte’s planning staff study “developments functioning as dormitories” and come up with ways to minimize any negative effects. Single-room leasing, the city said, was not defined, nor was it allowed, under its zoning ordinance.
Parking and student safety were the main focus. Rent-by-the-bedroom leases allow for several unrelated individuals to share an apartment, meaning each renter is much more likely to have his or her own vehicle, said Debra Campbell, assistant city manager and former planning director for the city. The city calculates the number of parking spaces needed for a complex based on the number of apartment units as opposed to the number of bedrooms.
Concerns had been raised about on-street parking and students storing their vehicles at the park-and-ride lots for the proposed Lynx Blue Line extension.
“Our biggest issue is parking and the potential impact on neighborhoods,” Campbell said. “We need to get a better understanding of how we assess parking lots.”
The city staff also noted that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department observed crime concentrations around such student housing. Some older communities lacked updated security standards, while others had students sharing the community with non-student renters.
“Our students haven’t had the best experience living with non-students,” said Langley.
Property crimes are the most prevalent type of infraction in the area, said Lt. Robert Whitley, who works in the CMPD’s University City division. Whitley said 50 percent of the offenses last year in the division occurred in Area 2, where UNCC is located. He added, however, that a lot of the malfeasance is connected to those not residing in off-campus student housing.
City takes a look
The city considered several ways to fix the problem, including prohibiting rent-by-bedroom development, limiting the practice to specific zoning districts, and amending the definition of dormitory in its zoning ordinance. However, the city was precluded from acting because doing so would violate the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discriminatory practices that make housing unavailable to individuals because of familial status.
In addition, the N.C. Court of Appeals had found in 1981 that a municipality does not have the authority to control the manner in which a property is owned, but may only regulate the use of property through zoning, i.e., those in charge of zoning controls cannot control leasing arrangements.
Furthermore, developers requesting a rezoning don’t have to volunteer whether they intend to market the property for rental or ownership, Campbell said. “We don’t ask,” she said, adding that the information is often given in part to allay the concerns of local residents.
Dropping the zoning issue, the city said it would focus on strategies to deal with parking, as well as recommending that the police department work with UNCC and apartment managers to implement a program to increase security at off-campus housing.
City, UNCC work together
Implemented in August, the “Niner Choice” program sets standards for a property’s security features. Developments that meet certain requirements, such as accepting only student residents and including higher-grade and secondary locks, emergency phones, solid core doors and gated entries and fencing, will be allowed to advertise on UNCC’s housing website.
Campbell says the Niner Choice program can be applied citywide. While it is voluntary, she says it “is a deliberate market-driven opportunity” for residential management to provide parents and students a chance to opt for pre-screened properties.
Laura Harmon, assistant director for the city’s Planning Department, said the staff is collecting data and studying parking availability to ascertain the scope of the problem. Last year, the staff came up with strategies that included exploring the need for car-sharing programs, assessing the necessity of new sidewalks and bike lanes, extending CATS/UNCC shuttle service times and routes, and evaluating where on-street parking could be provided. Another option was to amend the University City Area Plan to implement parking maximums for new multifamily development surrounding UNCC.
“We’re looking at this in the broader context of parking regulations,” Harmon said. Still, she said, any decision on the matter seems to be a way off.
“We’re really at ‘What are our next steps at this point in time?’”