An impossible bind?

Exploring the student housing crisis in major cities

Expensive metro area plus affordable student housing? The math seems impossible. Yet, urban universities face considerable pressure to provide convenient, quality housing. From financial hurdles to legal challenges to student concerns, HappyCo frames the stakes.

Expensive metro area plus affordable student housing? The math seems impossible. Yet, urban universities face considerable pressure to provide convenient, quality housing. From financial hurdles to legal challenges to student concerns, HappyCo frames the stakes.

An impossible bind?
Meet the panelists

Expensive metro area plus affordable student housing? The math seems impossible. Yet, urban universities face considerable pressure to provide convenient, quality housing. From financial hurdles to legal challenges to student concerns, HappyCo frames the stakes.

In major cities, student housing is a topic that typically inspires strong reactions. During an interview with the Mercury News, UC Santa Cruz undergraduate Panna Mori described her off-campus apartment search as “incredibly frustrating,” since “everything is wildly expensive and there is so much competition.” Boston University senior Bella Manganello found her experience just as disheartening facing listings like this one: “Studio in Lux Comm Ave Bldg with Roof Deck & More! 7⁄1 No students.”

Meanwhile, much-sought-after UC Berkeley is using the kind of rhetoric that seems to spell… breaking point. To the Mercury News, spokesman Dan Mogulof stressed: “This is a near existential problem for the campus when it comes to our ability to continue recruiting and retaining the best faculty that are out there.”

Making matters worse, the housing development subject can spark a healthy dose of NIMBYism. When facing the prospect of Carnegie Mellon student housing in his Pittsburgh neighborhood, homeowner Don Sharapan told his local CBS station: “Clyde Street was always a quiet residential street. Now they want to make it into Animal House.”

Needless to say, the student housing issue would pose a variety of questions anywhere. But in major cities, the debate appears particularly heated. From financial burdens to legal challenges to student concerns, HappyCo explores the urban student housing battle from multiple angles. Finally, HappyCo shares how an arts institution navigates the problem in one of the most notorious housing markets of all: San Francisco.

Financial and logistic concerns: the first roadblocks.

parent student moving

Interestingly, a recent MultiHousing News article hints at a positive twist to the student housing story, as “a record $10.8 billion was invested into student housing in the U.S. last year,” and, consequently, “overall, the market remains strong.” However, the same piece provides insights from Tom Tomaszewski, COO and President of Construction for The Annex Group, regarding the biggest financial concerns in student housing.

According to Tomaszewski, “the two largest issues with major effects” are “the skyrocketing cost of construction as well as challenges to find qualified subcontract labor.” On the labor front, student housing proposals may be competing with traditional multifamily, as Tomaszewski argues: “finding good qualified subcontractors has been very difficult lately due to the high volume of multifamily construction currently underway in most areas of the country.” Relatedly, universities may also be confronted with a labor shortage as “many in the [real estate] industry are still feeling the consequences of losing a large portion of the trade workforce during the last recession when electricians, carpenters and more left their field.”

When it comes to logistical challenges, one of the biggest dilemmas for universities is providing housing that offers “walkability to campus.” Kyle Bach, CEO of The Annex Group, concedes that this perk is “a challenge at times, as many university towns are fully developed with little to no room for new construction near campus.” Yet, Bach maintains: “Finding in-fill sites adjacent to college campuses can be extremely challenging and time intensive, but the pay-off is well worth the work.”

Indeed, the “pay-off” Bach describes is considerable: from recruiting accomplished faculty and students to fostering lasting ties between them and the urban communities where they’ve chosen to work and study. Before turning to the NIMBY pushback and legal challenges some institutions end up facing in their housing quests, it’s important to get a sense of the stakes these schools face. In other words, given costly construction bills and potential legal battles, why do universities try so tirelessly to develop new housing?

High stakes — why universities push so hard to build housing.

friends bantering

Put simply: when highly-ranked schools can’t solve housing challenges for undergrads, graduate students, and faculty, they risk losing top talent to other institutions. The Mercury News provided sobering statistics in the case of UC Berkeley, revealing: “a recent university-affiliated working group found that to successfully recruit and retain professors, the school needs between 260 and 390 homes for new faculty.” The current number is a far cry away. According to the study, UC Berkeley only has “about 26 homes in the neighborhoods around campus.”

To be sure, the housing barrier is an issue would-be applicants — and even current faculty — keep top of mind when weighing their loyalty to the university. The Mercury News captures their concerns in a nutshell, quoting recently-hired UC Berkeley professor, Elizabeth Linos. She admits, “if it weren’t for the housing challenge, Berkeley would be the ideal school for anyone at my level. And because of the housing challenge, I have to think twice about whether or not I can stay here.”

sad apartment search

Thousands of miles away, Boston college student Emma Goodwin addressed just this debate in a first-person piece published in the Boston Globe. Lamenting the shortage of affordable housing for the many students who study in the city, Goodwin writes: “moving off-campus… gives students the chance to put down roots that can make the difference as they decide where to live after graduation.” She claims that, in “treating undergraduates as if they aren’t city residents, Boston prevents students from considering themselves as such.”

This dynamic, Goodwin argues, is “probably a big reason New England had the lowest retention rate of college grads of any region in the country in a 2013 study.” Yet, as Goodwin’s draining apartment search ultimately proved successful, she had the opportunity to feel “I’m part of a city neighborhood… like a resident rather than a visitor.” Indeed, that difference convinced Goodwin to “stay here after I graduate this month.”

With recruitment and affordability in mind, universities working to build student housing would benefit from learning how to navigate… NIMBYism.

Navigating NIMBYism: the power of healthy debate.

city apartments

Carnegie Mellon University’s current student housing push, to build a six-floor dorm with 265 beds, may serve as a useful model for other universities facing concerns from their local community. Right off the bat, one neighbor raised concerns about privacy, stressing: “our house is two-and-a-half stories. This building is going to be towering over us.” Others feared their home’s value would plummet, asking reporters: “who wants to buy a home right across the street from a dormitory?”

Importantly, Carnegie Mellon proved diplomatic when pressed by neighbors and news agencies about its proposal. The university made clear in a statement that it “strives to build state-of-the-art residence halls that offer a comparative advantage to students, while also providing spaces that foster community building and learning.” Above all, Carnegie Mellon maintained that this student housing proposal is not at odds with neighbors’ lifestyles, explaining: “we strongly believe… these university-managed living environments are in the best interests of both the student experience and our near-campus neighborhoods.”

student moving in

Yet, the school sensed an impulse to make peace wouldn’t be enough on its own. Facing a healthy dose of NIMBYism, Carnegie Mellon has prioritized dialogue and transparency in serving the needs of its neighbors. In the same statement to CBS Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon detailed its efforts to address locals’ concerns about the student housing project.

Emphasizing that “we are deeply committed to engaging with our neighbors,” the university says it made the decision to hold additional private meetings with neighbors after it learned certain town house owners in the area weren’t aware of the proposal — or their invitations to attend previously held public meetings. In a push to build trust, Carnegie Mellon made the call to arrange “a private meeting with them… spending nearly three hours explaining the plans, answering their questions, and providing assurances that we would continue to regularly communicate with them leading up to, and throughout, the project.”

Needless to say, this willingness to engage in healthy debate, to address problems before they boil over into outright tension, can serve as a powerful foundation for success as a university communicates a housing proposal to concerned parties. Indeed, should a legal challenge arise, this kind of behavior might prove game-changing.

The biggest housing hurdle of all? Legal challenges.

student studying

Once universities overcome financial roadblocks, logistical obstacles, and even neighborhood pushback, there may still be a menacing hurdle ahead of them: legal challenges. UC Santa Cruz, for example, hopes to build housing for “3,000 students who often are left out of on-campus housing — juniors, seniors, graduate students, and students with families.” Yet, the university finds itself “squaring off against two environmental groups,” according to the Mercury News.

UC Santa Cruz intended to build the units on “undeveloped open space,” at the campus, but an environmental group feels differently, arguing: “The East Meadow is iconic — it’s the gateway to the university. You come onto the campus through the main entrance and you have this wide expanse of open meadow.” Thus, universities across the U.S. should be wary of assuming even development plans on their grounds will go unchallenged.

Meanwhile, UC Berkeley faces a much more expansive threat to its housing plans — and overall growth. The university could potentially face a lawsuit from the city attorney over a “proposed a five-story residential project to house newly hired, non-tenured professors and grad students.” Why? According to the Mercury News, officials are increasingly at odds with the “overall impact of the university… costing the city in transportation, police and fire services and taking already scarce housing units off the market.”

Of course, challenges like these may be short-term feuds. They could also prove disastrous. Acknowledging that either outcome is possible, academic institutions in major cities would be wise to emphasize their proposals’ benefits for every party involved (students, faculty, and surrounding communities), to engage their neighbors in open dialogue, and to communicate diplomatically in the event of legal challenges.

For an in-depth perspective on the obstacles and opportunities urban institutions face in the realm of student housing, HappyCo spoke with Jason Smith, Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Quality housing, lasting friendships: SF Conservatory insights.

student recital

In 2006, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) moved from a quiet, residential neighborhood to the city’s vibrant arts district, an area rich with visual art, dance, and, most importantly… music. As Associate Dean for Student Affairs Jason Smith puts it, “the transition from the Sunset to Civic Center was a big move for SFCM, but available housing combined with the changing nature of housing in Civic Center have proven to be a challenge.”

When the acclaimed Conservatory changed locations, faculty members were located closer to their side gigs: from the San Francisco Opera to the San Francisco Symphony. Students, however, were suddenly located quite far from the city’s few neighborhoods known for (comparatively) affordable housing, Smith admits.

Years ago, Smith recalls, “students were initially given an option to stay in a youth hostel nearby, which wasn’t enough capacity and also was not exactly what students and their parents were looking for.” So, the Conservatory set its eye on safe and convenient housing in the area, ultimately turning to a building called The Panoramic.

SFCM felt the new site was well-suited for its needs, as “the concept for the building was young professionals in micro apartments.” The Conservatory’s decision also provided a nice opportunity for student musicians to mingle with student artists, as the California College of the Arts leases floors in the complex, too.

student housing

Needless to say, SFCM is very hopeful about the long-term gains when students of different backgrounds have a chance to connect. This is in part why SFCM maintains an on-campus residency requirement of three years for undergraduates. After all, Smith’s view on student housing is this: “it helps you build friendships, an attachment to a school, the foundation to really transition into college. For us, it’s not just about putting people in a space, it’s about how they experience it.”

The institution is particularly conscientious of the challenges international students (33% of the Conservatory’s student body) might face, entering a bustling city whose housing market is notoriously pricey. “We feel this way for all of our 450 undergraduates and graduate students, but particularly for international and out-of-state students, we always want to give them a stress-free pathway into SF. It’s why our graduate students can live for an academic year or more in housing and then network to move off-campus.”

But what happens when it’s time to make this switch to off-campus housing? That’s when the Conservatory’s Student Affairs staff makes very clear: “we’re available to meet and help with your apartment search!” Indeed, the institution offers a year-round internal housing group “where they can network among each other and even sublease rooms to fellow students.”

However, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has recently made an expensive — but game-changing — push to ensure far fewer of its undergraduates and graduate students have to endure a San Francisco housing hunt. SFCM decided to build the Ute and William K. Bowes, Jr. Center, set to open in Fall 2020.

faculty student practice

In San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s words, “this place has become a hub for artists everywhere, and now that the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has decided to take it even a step further, to come up with this innovative plan to produce 420 units of housing for their students — it’s absolutely amazing.”

Smith is just as excited as Mayor Breed to see the Bowes Center opens its doors next year. However, he has some words of warning for other urban institutions: “no school in a big city should ever start a student housing project thinking it’s as easy as saying: ‘here’s the money — build it.’”

By way of explanation, Smith spells out the hurdles involved in developing any kind of urban housing: “In San Francisco, the challenges have a lot to do with timing, and it really takes a team effort, committed partners to get a project off the ground.” To Smith, a keen eye for detail is a must. It’s why “[SFCM] is always monitoring the various goals we have to keep on time and on budget.”

Indeed, Smith reveals: “What a lot of people don’t realize is the [Bowes Center’s] complexity… as it’s not just student housing but also a performance-based space that includes two floors of replacement housing, because the previous building on the lot held rent-controlled units.” Given San Francisco’s infamous lack of affordable housing, it was a city requirement that the Conservatory “had to arrange new housing for those tenants and provide replacement units for them at their previous rental rate.”

Bowes Center exterior

Yet, despite all of the challenges involved, Smith and his colleagues at SFCM feel grateful to have a “a great partnership with the city and with ECB, Equity Community Builders, our project managers. Combined with our construction company, Pankow, they’ve all been enormously helpful as we navigate so many processes with city agencies and others.”

This kind of positive collaboration has been invaluable, since the Conservatory will be serving a range of needs at the Bowes Center. As Smith explains, “in the design phase, we had to make sure it was done in a way that was comfortable for those pre-existing tenants and for our students — as well as the public moving through performance spaces.”

Ultimately, the Bowes Center’s housing and educational spaces appear very likely to please their main audience: students and faculty. In addition to featuring “a live performance space, multiple classrooms and rehearsal space for ensembles” the site will have a “large observation deck” and a “student center.”

And, the actual student housing units? Each suite has been arranged for a nice work-play balance: “a full bathroom, kitchenette, and living area… designed to accommodate small ensemble rehearsals and individual practice.” Amidst all of these perks, however, SFCM has not forgotten one of the biggest necessities of all in student housing: safety.

Smith stresses: “safety is a key concern when you build a new building in an urban area. It’s critical to ask: “who’s allowed to enter the building” and “what’s the path like between campus and the building?” To that end, Smith says the Conservatory has been working with the Civic Center Business Benefit District as well as SFPD to address any potential issues in the neighborhood.


As an arts institution located in a bustling downtown area, the San Francisco Conservatory is already highly vigilant about student safety. Smith explains: “we go through a process of orientation for safety training and offer students self-defense classes. However, we find the conversations are really about helping them build confidence in case they face the kinds of situations you could in any big city.”

For example, Smith and his colleagues caution these promising young musicians that hearing your surroundings is critical. Smith puts it simply: “We always stress that, while they love music and enjoy listening to it with noise-cancelling headphones, that’s a no-no in San Francisco. It could prevent our students from hearing bicycle bells or someone trying to talk to them. So, we tell them that the key to staying safe is listening to society and actively participating in it.”

Fortunately, the message is ringing loud and clear; Smith says there have been no major security incidents, even though the Panoramic is about a ten-minute walk from the SFCM campus. Smith credits this to the sense of camaraderie the Conservatory inspires among students who live in this building.


“With a student population of about 450 (undergraduate and graduate level combined), there’s really a sense of face here; our musicians know who goes to school with them. If two students are leaving at the same time and both know the other lives in The Panoramic, we encourage them to walk there together.”

To that end, SFCM arranged its lobby in such a way that there’s space to wait by the front desk for anyone else who might be heading home after a day of practice or performance. Smith is proud that “we really push this, the notion that we’re all in this safety gig together.” Yet, he and his colleagues understand that some in the iPhone-coveting Gen Z generation might assume there’s more to this kind of in-person interaction than SFCM intends.

As a result, Smith says, “we assure students that walking home together doesn’t mean anybody has to hold hands or be best friends — it’s just about staying safe. Of course, we’re always happy to hear when two students had the chance to be social and form of a friendship because of it.”

In the same vein, Smith and his colleagues are excited about the many kinds of positive encounters its multi-use Bowes Center will make possible — between musicians, residents, and members of the public. To Smith, “the great thing we see from housing at SFCM is the community that’s built, the connections among students of different interests, different instruments. We have classical and jazz and technology and applied composition programs now. As we’ve diversified the type of person with different musical interests who attends the Conservatory, we’re giving all students a more well-rounded experience, and it’s really transformative for them.”

Not surprisingly, Smith and his colleagues believe deeply that “this is what college and student housing are all about. It’s why, by the time our musicians leave the Conservatory, we feel they’re prepared to do anything.”

sfcm building

From meaningful student experiences to powerful learning opportunities for the public, there’s much to be gained when universities can prove successful in building accessible housing. Interestingly, multifamily operators may even become universities’ allies — rather than rivals — in this urban housing crisis. The Boston Globe suggests why a business model like Scape’s might benefit students and developers alike. Writer Tim Logan notes how “this company rents dorms that operate “independently from any particular university but offer 51-week leases to students from any local school, with a high level of services and 24⁄7 support staff.”

Indeed, Logan connects the dots between Scape’s ambitions and students’ needs, writing that the British company has “just acquired a second major site to develop a privately run dormitory for college students and has a third under contract,” according to sources in real estate. All told, Logan explains, “the deals could give Scape the potential to build dorms with perhaps 2,000 beds in an already busy and fast-growing area around Fenway Park, putting a big dent in the neighborhood’s acute shortage of student housing.” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has reason to celebrate, as he’s called for “18,500 units of student housing by 2030.”

Glennis Markison
About the Author
Glennis Markison
Senior Content & Webinar Producer

Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.


Your Blog awaits

Get access to An impossible bind? and more helpful insights from the HappyCo resource library.

Close Icon