Is Tallahassee amassing a glut of student housing?

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T.K Wetherell was angry. Was he also prophetic? You be the judge. A portion of Tallahassee’s economic future — and the quality of life in some of its nicest residential neighborhoods — may hang in the balance.

The occasion for Wetherell’s outburst: The Jan. 29, 2009 luncheon of the Capital Tiger Bay Club. Then in his sixth and final year as president of Florida State University, he was witnessing a reversal of some of the gains FSU had made under his strong leadership.

The recession hit Florida hard. Nobody wanted to siphon more money out of a struggling private sector, so lawmakers avoided hiking taxes. Instead, they slashed the state budget. Result: Florida recovered better and faster than tax-and-spend states, but the long-term gain caused short-term pain.

Higher education suffered, and austerity had university leaders closely scrutinizing expenses. So when Wetherell gazed into an audience that included several city officials, he had some complaints to share. For one thing, he thought FSU was paying too much for the electricity supplied by the city-owned utility. He also thought the city charged too much for the cops who handled game day traffic.

Also sensing that some city leaders took FSU for granted and didn’t sufficiently appreciate its economic benefits, T.K. being T.K. added that if he rode Renegade down to City Hall, the officials ought to line up to kiss the horse’s – errh – rump.

Wetherell went on to remind his listeners that kids finishing high school in South Florida could find numerous other higher-ed options much closer to home than FSU, so there was no guarantee that Tallahassee’s student population would continue to grow.

Was he onto something? Maybe. Florida Board of Governors data paint an interesting picture of recent enrollment trends. In the nine-year period that began in the fall of 2009, the year of Wetherell’s warning, SUS headcount enrollment grew by 46,260, to 358,519.

During that same period, however, FSU’s enrollment grew by only 1,599 and fluctuated year-to-year at around 41,000. Last fall it was 41,800, but — in what may surprise local residents who’ve noticed all of those construction cranes on and around the campus — that’s just 243 higher than it was in 2011.

Meanwhile, FSU’s stock of on-campus housing has dropped slightly during this period – to 6,712 last fall from 7,066 in 2009, with the closure of Alumni Village and other dorms offset by the opening of new and remodeled dorms.

The stream of student applications for admission to FSU has fluctuated a bit but remained fairly strong. In 2009 the university received 36,471 applications and accepted 18,343, of whom 8,144 enrolled. Last fall FSU received 42,861 applications and accepted 19,283, of whom 8,162 enrolled.

FSU’s four-year graduation rate is also a factor in the demand for student housing. At 68.4 percent it’s not only the best ever rate as FSU but also the best ever in the university system. When students don’t linger in school for five or six years to finish their degrees, it decreases the demand for student housing.

Florida A&M University’s enrollment also has fluctuated during this period but generally has declined. Last fall it was 9,909, up slightly from 9,614 the year before down significantly from its recent peak of 13,277 in 2010.

Tallahassee Community College also saw its enrollment sag from peaks during the recession, when kids who couldn’t find work took courses instead. TCC’s fall 2017 enrollment of 12,507 was 9,091 below 2009’s enrollment of 21,598.

Although many TCC students are from the Tallahassee area and choose to live at home, TCC also attracts significant numbers of students from South Florida, particularly Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Some of those students pick TCC when they want to stay close to high school chums who gained admission to FSU or FAMU. Others may simply want to get as far away from home as possible while still paying in-state tuition.

Now, if there are really 12,000 or so fewer college students in Tallahassee than there were a decade or so ago, it raises an interesting question: Who’s going to fill up all that new student housing, much of which is being built by out-of-town developers lured by incentives proffered by the Community Redevelopment Agency? Would it have been built were it not for those incentives?

And if proximity to the campuses where parking is a chronic problem lets these properties fill up despite the pricey rents, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may mean less traffic congestion and a richer college experience when, say, the library is a short hike or bike trip away.

Then again, if the student housing complexes along the fringes of the campuses fill up, who will fill up the student housing complexes much farther away? Will they end up half empty, go into decline, become Section 8 housing, or get boarded up and become a nuisance attracting squatters and vandals, as has occurred at some of Tallahassee’s vacant motels and homes from time to time?

Bottom line: Inquiring minds wonder if Tallahassee is developing a student housing glut aided by some of the CRA’s practices. If so, city officials and neighborhood leaders in the areas that are the most likely to be impacted by the downside of such a glut ought to be asking questions before it’s too late.

Robert F. Sanchez is a retired journalist residing in Tallahassee.

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