What Students Want in Housing
New survey will influence on-campus housing plans
What to do after StuVi2?
Even before the 26-story residential tower opened in fall 2009, University officials were thinking about the next step. Everything was on the table, from another building (StuVi3, anyone?) to prioritizing residences to be remodeled.
But before anything could happen, officials had to address a key question: why aren’t students filling up all available on-campus space?
About 300 dorm and apartment-style rooms, or 3 percent, were empty last academic year, according to Marc Robillard, director of housing. At least 3 percent of BU’s 870 graduate apartments didn’t house students, says Gary Nicksa, vice president for operations. “There is a question as to whether we are meeting the specific needs of undergraduate and graduate students,” Nicksa says.
To answer that question, the University launched six focus groups at the end of January, administered by consulting firm Maguire Associates, to get student perspectives regarding on-campus housing. Information from those sessions led to an online survey in early March, sent to all full-time students. BU will use Maguire’s survey analysis to improve plans for housing development and renovation.
Kathy Dawley, president of Maguire Associates and a member of the BU housing survey project team, says her firm will start releasing results in early April. The target is to receive responses from 30 percent of the student body, about 9,500 people.
Undergraduate questions address topics as diverse as room selection and roommate relationships, quality of residences, and familiarity with off-campus housing options. The graduate survey asks how students search for apartments, if they know about BU-owned options, and for a breakdown of their monthly expenses.
Although she couldn’t yet comment on survey details, Dawley says focus group students were “very much aware of the rather impressive array” of housing options. They were pleased with campus security, she says, and had high praise for food and dining services. What could be improved, they told her, was the housing selection process, a lottery system weighted by class year.
“Students have told us that room selection is stressful, extra-stressful,” Robillard says. “You’re essentially in a competition.”
As to bang for their buck, Dawley says students’ opinions depended on where they lived, with most students ranking StuVi2 as the best option — whether or not it’s home.
For Peter Cusato, vice president for auxiliary services, the most interesting focus group discussions were among graduate students.
“Housing isn’t the big component of their decision regarding where to do graduate work,” he says. “What was surprising is that most of them show up in the city with no idea where they’re going to be living.”
Cusato wants to see more grad students living in University buildings, although BU only has 800 rental apartments for more than 13,000 graduate students. “We don’t do a very good job of advertising their availability,” he acknowledges. “We’re not terribly on the cutting edge of electronics when it comes to displaying our inventory.”
The graduate population is much more diverse than its undergraduate counterpart. Some come alone, others with spouses or partners, others with children. No one housing option will do.
One answer, some say, could be off-campus, private dormitories that house graduate students from multiple universities around Boston.
Private developer Lincoln Property Company worked for more than two years siting such a project in the Fenway neighborhood, only to see neighbors and the city block construction. Rumor has it that John B. Hynes III, developer of the stagnant Filene’s block downtown, might entertain offers from companies specializing in private dorms to move in there, although Hynes has not confirmed an interest.
Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, says universities could work with private developers to build what he calls a “multi-university graduate student village” to house some of the 95,000 graduate students in Boston and relieve pressure on the city’s housing market.
“If it were feasible, this would be a tremendous win for both the university community and the city,” Bluestone says.
Cusato isn’t against such a proposal. “It probably isn’t a bad idea if it were properly advertised,” he says, “and if the institutions made their incoming graduates aware of its existence.” But, he adds, BU wouldn’t allow private dorms on campus. “We don’t have the land,” he says. “And what land we do have, we’re committed to building on ourselves.”
The University is authorized to build another residence with space for 500 beds between 10 Buick St. and 33 Harry Agganis Way (also known as StuVi1 and StuVi2), but that project is on hold.
“We’ll digest what we’ve already committed to up there and then see which way the wind is blowing,” Cusato says.
Robillard is less hesitant about the success of a possible StuVi3, paraphrasing a line from the baseball film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”
Meanwhile, according to Cusato, BU will focus for at least the next four years on renovating existing residences.
The idea is to give older buildings “extreme makeovers,” Robillard says, updating elevators and other mechanical services, providing major facelifts to rooms. Built-in furniture would be ripped out; beds would be loft-friendly to give students more floor space.
One building renovation typically costs about $1.5 million, although that varies with size and ambition. Work already has begun along Bay State Road. A rehab of the west half of the Towers is scheduled for this summer. Claflin and Sleeper Halls in West Campus also are on the remodeling list.
By spiffing up residences and building a shiny new one, University officials hope to accomplish two related goals: stop students from straying off campus and fill vacant dorms and apartments. But the weakened state of the Boston housing market cuts against those efforts.
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