Auburn Mayor Ron Anders voiced his concern over student housing in the city during last week's City Council meeting after briefly recounting his experience talking with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox at the recent Big 5 Mayors quarterly meeting in Birmingham.
"I would tell you as a mayor sitting here tonight that I'm concerned," said Anders about student housing in the city. "We’ve got to figure this out. I remain steadfast in believing that this could be one of our greatest trouble-points for the future of our community."
The Big 5 Mayors meeting brings in mayors from the state's largest municipalities — Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Tuscaloosa. The latest meeting also brought in mayors from the next five largest cities as well, which includes Auburn.
Maddox was generous with his thoughts and time, said Anders, who noted that the tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa in 2011 created a need to rebuild some student housing.
"They just had scenario there where they just had a lot of investment in student housing, aggressively," said Anders. "In Mayor Maddox’s mind, it got to be where they had too much. They therefore have created a stoppage to student housing at a certain level, not all levels. They are governing what you can build going forward.
"The main thing I gleaned from Walt is that this is a problem for them, too, and he has taken the step to doing something about it and try to bring it under control."
In January, the Tuscaloosa City Council approved a moratorium on large-scale multi-family housing projects with over 200 bedrooms for at least 90 days, according to a report by the Tuscaloosa News, which also quoted Maddox voicing his concern about the city's ability to provide services and its need for critical information.
Anders began voicing his concern about student housing in Auburn during his mayoral campaign, which led to the creation of the Student-Housing Task Force, which has met multiple times but is still waiting on official numbers from Auburn University about enrollment and new on-campus student housing projections before moving forward with any action. The task force is also waiting on a comprehensive inventory of student housing to be completed by city staff. Anders said he expects to receive all of that information soon.
"Once we understand what the inventories are of Auburn and once we understand and know what the university’s vision is, then I believe the task force can come back together and begin to talk about what are the options going forward, if we need any options," he said. "All of this information might tell us that we’re in good shape, but I don’t think it will."
The city previously imposed a moratorium on new multi-family developments and extended it during 2015 to allow city staff to review student housing and to make recommendations.
Ultimately, the city's private dormitory use was created and the zoning ordinance changed to prohibit those projects in the Urban Core and limit them to the city's three Urban Neighborhood Districts.
Might another moratorium on private dormitories be possible?
"Considering what we could be facing, I believe we’ll have to consider all options and ultimately the council will have to make a decision," said Anders. "But I don’t think it’s in Auburn’s best interest for us to just continue to allow large-scale student housing to be built in Auburn if the numbers show that we don’t need it."
Over the past several years, a number of large student-housing projects downtown have come online, with more opening this fall, one more under construction and another in the early phases of demolition. Once the projects are all online, about 2,900 bedrooms will have been added to the city's student-housing inventory. Auburn University currently houses 4,800 residents on campus, according to its housing website. Auburn's enrollment has increased over the past five years from about 25,000 in 2010-11 to 30,440 students in 2018-19.
While the city hasn't received official word from the university about its future enrollment or on-campus housing projections, Anders indicated at the City Council meeting that those numbers might stay roughly the same.
"We’re starting to hear this some in the community that the new administration and the Board of Trustees have made their decision on what the future of Auburn’s enrollment is, and what it is today is what it’s going to be," he said.