While I appreciate everything that Village President Collum says in this article, the fact remains that there is a large and growing housing shortage at Seton Hall that is driving students to seek off-campus housing in South Orange and we need a comprehensive policy and plan, not a quick one-off patch, to deal with this overflow. The numbers speak for themselves:
Seton Hall has an undergraduate enrollment of 5,800 but housing for only 2,350. They prioritize housing for freshmen; this year they have 80% of the freshman class, 1,250 students, living in dorms. But that leaves only 1,100 beds for all the returning sophomores, juniors, and seniors. This is the housing shortage that I wrote about earlier. If students who require housing as freshmen also need housing for their next three years, there may be 2,650 students looking for off-campus housing each year, many of them in South Orange.
And according to Seton Hall’s own President these numbers are only increasing: “In five out of the last six years, … we exceeded our target freshman enrollment,” the 2015-2016 “freshman class has 1,406 students… (and) represent our largest freshman classes since 1982. This year, for the first time, 40 percent of our freshmen are from outside of New Jersey. Less than a decade ago, only 20 percent were from outside of New Jersey. We have freshmen from Hawaii and over 50 freshmen from California. We have recruiters around the country. Seton Hall has a growing national reputation outside the state.”
Now there may still be 100 open beds in Seton Hall dorms for September, but that misses the point and may in fact be a symptom of the problem itself. Seton Hall dorm space is very expensive and students know they can save a lot of money living off campus. On-campus shared dorm rooms today cost between $4,100 and $4,600 per student per semester, and off-campus doubles at Turrell Manor can be as much as $6,000 per student per semester – all without a meal plan or parking. Summer and winter/spring break housing is an additional $390 per week. These prices create a high budget for students shopping for private housing and allow students to outbid other tenants and encourage owners to convert their properties to student rentals. Two examples demonstrate how significant this incentive can be:: four students planning to spend the full year at Seton Hall (2 semesters plus 12 week rental for the summer) could share a 2 bedroom / 2 bath apartment at 3rd and Valley and save between $14,000 and $29,000 per year on housing; six students looking to share a single family house such as the one currently for rent on Waverly Place would save between $35,000 and $58,000 per year on housing. Given these numbers there is plenty of money to buy some furniture, pay for utilities and insurance and that’s before counting savings on parking and meal plans. It is a wonder that any upper-class students live in University housing. We have a gentrification problem, but one in which students can outbid the population we are trying to attract and retain in South Orange.
We absolutely should be working closely with Seton Hall to understand their growth plans and to look for ways that we can help them continue to be successful. I applaud Village President Collum’s efforts on this front. My request is simply that we put the discussions about student housing downtown in the context of an overall comprehensive housing needs assessment and proposal from Seton Hall, and that we have a robust debate about alternative uses for a downtown development site before endorsing its use for student housing.
On the first point, we should request a comprehensive report from Seton Hall that clarifies how large the gap is today between the number of students who require housing and the number Seton Hall can accommodate, how Seton Hall’s aspirations will increase this gap, and how they propose to meet their long term student housing needs. As I pointed out above, this proposal needs to address the cost differential that is driving students into off-campus housing. This proposal would allow us to understand how a downtown residence hall fits into an overall solution — is it the last off-campus contribution we are being asked to provide for student housing or just the next? Can we absorb the number of students they are looking to find private housing in town without that use crowding out other uses that are arguably more important for the long term health and success of South Orange?
On the second point, we have very limited space downtown that can be developed. We have proven that we can attract developers to projects in South Orange – now we are in a position to be be selective about which uses will contribute the most to maintaining and enhancing the distinctive character of our town while also increasing our tax base so people can actually afford to live here. Student housing is certainly one option but there are others that need to be considered: downtown development sites could be used for more market rate rentals (which have proven to generate very little additional load on our schools), for senior housing to help older people stay in town when they want to downsize, for live/work space to serve our incredible creative community, or for office space to attract businesses (and Seton Hall offices) to our transit friendly downtown.
All of these uses would help support downtown merchants, arguably more than transient undergraduate students, and would add little or no load to our schools. We should debate this question as part of a comprehensive planning process that evaluates Seton Hall’s housing plan in relation to other possible uses. Until we complete that process we should not move forward with discussions about new student housing downtown.