Not quite so neighborly

As the University of Vermont expands, Burlington does not. Town-gown relations are becoming strained as both the University and city fight to maintain their share of housing.

The University is reaching its housing capacity. Currently, UVM has a total housing capacity of 5,544, according to the Campus Planning Office.

Freshman Bekah Woodin said she lived in a forced triple dorm room last semester.

“How was it? Very tight! There was just enough room for my lofted bed and my desk and dresser that fit perfectly underneath it,” Woodin said.

The University expects 300 additional students enrolled in the Fall 2009 semester Director of Admissions, Beth Wiser said. This will put even more strain on the University to house students, but UVM is prepared, Wiser said.

“Unlike last year where the tripling came more at the last minute, we are starting this year being very strategic about placing students across the campus and choosing rooms that might lend themselves best to tripling,” Wiser said.

The University is now showing a triple room to prospective students. “It’s a little truth in advertising,” said Wiser. It also is more economical, which is beneficial to some students, Wiser said.

Even with benefit of a cheaper cost, Woodin explained her experience in a triple room as less than ideal.

“It wasn’t the greatest experience,” Woodin said. “I was never able to have friends over to the room … because there was nowhere to sit.”

The University has decided to provide increased housing for next year’s additional enrollment, Director of Residential Life Stacey Miller said.

“By obtaining McAuley, we will add approximately 160 extra beds to our housing system, which will minimize the number of students we have to triple for fall of ’09,” Miller said.

“In addition, the increased number of first-year students on the Trinity Campus will hopefully help to build a stronger sense of community in that area of campus,” she said.

The cramped housing situation is not only felt on campus. Off-campus housing in residential neighborhoods is experiencing less elbow room as well.

“Oh, there’s no question that as we reach capacity in housing, it puts pressure on the city. I think the benefit is that the University has been in very close conversation with the leaders in the Burlington community,” Wiser said.

Sue Breen, Property Manager at Rieley Properties works with a large amount of college students from November until March leasing off campus apartments.

Most of the apartments that Rieley Properties, rents to UVM students are condensed into one area.

“All the downtown is what I call ‘Collegeville’. You know they have that whole area … Willard and Union, Hikock and Converse,” Breen said of the location of the properties.

Students, however, do feel the push in higher rents and less availability. Senior Margaret Parkin explained that she had difficulty in finding an affordable off-campus apartment that was suited for walking to class.

“We were paying about $525 a month [for a four bedroom apartment] and within one year, we are now paying about $750 a month. So we are basically talking about $200,” Parkin said.

Parkin and her roommates are not the only students with large jumps in rent.

“You know, everyone we talk to is in a similar situation, with their rent jumping incredible amounts in a very short period of time,” Parkin said.

The low vacancies and high rent in off-campus housing in Burlington may only fall lower and rise even higher in the future.

“I believe that the class of 2013 will probably be one of the largest classes in UVM history, and if the majority of that class is looking to move off in a couple of years, it could make housing in Burlington tight,” Miller said.

Community Relations Director Gail Shampnois works with community leaders to alleviate tension that can result between Burlington residents and UVM students, Wiser said.

The Community Relations Department heads campaigns for better relations such as Have A Heart, which works to reduce noise violations, according to the department.

City Council recently proposed an amendment to the Comprehensive Development Ordinance concerning the University to minimize effects of student housing on residential neighborhoods.

“The city council is considering creating a zoning situation where they wouldn’t let us build any more buildings on campus until we house a certain percentage, 75 percent, of our students on campus, which we don’t really think is a very workable situation,” Tom Gustafson, Vice President of Student and Campus Life, said.

Gustafson spoke about the issue at the Feb. 23 Burlington City Council meeting.

“We understand the City’s concerns about the impact of significant numbers of students residing off campus in Burlington,” Gustafson said.

“However, I do not believe that a zoning ordinance is the best means by which to bring about the desired outcome,” Gustafson said.

“Our students are not livestock or pawns to be moved around. Students want choices. When you’re 21, 22 you don’t want to be told what you have to do,” Gustafson said.

The University has a number of plans in the works to alleviate the housing crisis on campus and in the city, Gustafson said.

Kathy Cook, Associate Director for Residential Education, also said that next semester, a new housing program called Independent Living on Trinity Campus will provide another option for those worried about finding off campus housing.

Gustafson said he hopes that more creative options for additional housing can be thought through.

“I’d hate to see the green spaces on this campus just taken up with apartments,” he said.

There are always going to be tensions between residents and students of a college town, Gustafson said, but hopes that privately-owned and operated housing nearer to campus will reduce the amount of students in the downtown area.

There is a balance between the college and the city that needs to be carefully dealt with, Gustafson explained.

“The city wants us to build all this housing, which is fine, but you know they sort of assume, or some people assume, that the housing market is just going to stay like it is now: tiny vacancy rates, high rents,” he said.

“That’s not a bet I would want to make right now in this economy. Look, we may be heading into a depression. Potentially we could build all this housing and have a lot of boarded-up buildings in Burlington and people saying ‘we want the students back,'” Gustafson said.