Student Housing: S.F. board vote could ease student housing crunch

by Robert Selna for San Francisco Chronicle

Building student housing in San Francisco may become a more attractive option for developers if, as expected, the city approves new rules that would make it cheaper to create residential developments for colleges and universities.

San Francisco attracts students from around the world, but once they arrive, they often struggle to find a decent place to live. To help address that long-standing problem, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote today to exempt student residential projects from expensive affordable housing requirements.

The theory is that student housing developers in San Francisco compete for land with higher-end apartments or condominiums builders, yet their projects typically do not earn as much profit. The hope is that removing the affordable housing burdens – which demand that developers pay a significant fee or rent or sell a certain percentage of units at lower prices – will encourage builders to construct units for students.

Some developers agree and already are seeking out potential partnerships with local schools.

“A conspicuous feature of many of the institutions of higher learning in San Francisco is that they don’t provide any student housing, and so there’s an unmet demand,” said Patrick Kennedy, who, during the past decade, has built 500 housing units near the UC Berkeley campus.

Kennedy’s firm researched San Francisco’s student housing situation and found that there likely is a demand for about 10,000 student housing units.

He has had discussions with the University of San Francisco and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music about their housing shortfalls and sees areas South of Market as ideal for helping to fill their need. Other developers reportedly are conducting similar research.

The ordinance lifting the affordable housing fees is the brainchild of the Housing Action Coalition, which advocates for creating more housing in the city.

Tim Colen, the organization’s executive director, has been working on developing the legislation for two years after he was approached by the tiny American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which enrolls 300 students and whose main campus is on Arkansas Street in Potrero Hill. He soon learned that other colleges – large and small – had housing shortages.

The legislation says that the new student housing may not result in the loss or conversion of any current rental housing and that 30 percent of the beds in all projects must be occupied by students who receive or are eligible to receive need-based financial aid.

The development also must be owned or controlled (by way of a master lease or another agreement) by an accredited post-secondary educational institution, and the school must provide annual data documenting its occupants.

“This will help small, undercapitalized schools get some more rooms,” said Colen. “The schools will not be on the hook for the construction costs, but it will be on them to fill the buildings with residents.”

The California College of the Arts has only 1,800 students but still needs about 200 more beds. The school, which has campuses in Oakland and San Francisco, has attracted more pupils from out of town after building student apartments in the East Bay in 2003.

“We want the best and the brightest to come from all over the country, and if you don’t provide housing, they will go to places that do,” said David Meckel, director of research and planning at the college.

The legislation has generated little public opposition.

Colen and Kennedy say the changes also could help the city meet broader land-use goals, such as revitalizing neighborhoods and creating development near public transportation, a stated city priority. They also say it could help free up housing that might otherwise be occupied by families, but now houses students.

“Student housing is one of the few types that does not need parking,” said Kennedy. “Not having a car is not a huge impediment to going to school in San Francisco; it’s different if you have children and soccer practice.”

Kennedy said he also likes car-free developments because they lower the cost of construction. Garages, with ventilation and fire sprinkler systems, add a lot to the cost of a residential building, he said.


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