The Student-Housing Task Force held its first meeting this week in an effort to organize and talk about how to move forward.
One of the committee's first tasks will be to absorb the Danter Study, a study updated in October 2018 that analyzes the city's housing market. Mayor Ron Anders, who plans to be involved with this task force, also asked members affiliated with Auburn University to help come up with a plan to solicit student engagement, such as through a survey.
"I would even entertain getting some college students together and having some talks with them and just kind of understanding what it feels (like) to them today, where they want to live and why the want to live there ... and all the kinds of decisions that go into making a determination about where they live," Anders said.
Committee member Ray Huff, owner of AuburnRealty, stressed the importance of talking to a range of students, from freshmen to seniors, as their housing preferences change drastically during their college tenure, he said. Another member, Trey Rankin, who said he has worked in the student-housing business for 28 years, suggested international students not be left out of these conversations either.
An important piece of the puzzle to developing a student-housing strategy will be Auburn University. As far as what its plans are for on-campus housing and enrollment growth, the task force is currently in the waiting game.
The university's 2018-2023 Strategic Plan will be presented to its Board of Trustees (BOT) on Feb. 15, and at that time, the task force will have much more to go on.
"I look forward with excitement toward the university's strategic plan that will be offered to the BOT here in a little over two weeks," Anders said. "(University President) Dr. (Steven) Leath has told me it's something we can hang our hat on. It'll have enrollment projections on there, the future of student housing for the university on there, and it will not be a moving target for us. It'll be something that we can work with and understand going forward."
Student enrollment has steadily increased each year. From 2013 to 2017, the student body increased by 1,000 each year, and this fall, the university reported 30,440 students were enrolled in classes.
"(Enrollment) has been a little bit of a moving target over my last six years of being on the council," Anders said. "But, according to Dr. Leath, and I haven't been told differently, they're going to offer the BOT a real plan for that in the future."
Anders also said he believes the city will see changes happen on campus as far as student-housing and that the university could "potentially look at how to do business in a little bit different way, not necessarily on campus, but as something where they'd have control or ownership on."
Assistant City Manager Kevin Cowper said the university currently has about 4,700 student-housing beds on campus, a low number compared to how many seek housing. He added that, last he heard, the university does not plan on adding additional beds, but only replacing older beds with new ones.
The Student-Housing Task Force will meet again on Feb. 13 and will likely hear a presentation on the Danter Study.
Anders said he anticipates the task force using 90 to 120 days to gather information and absorb the Danter Study and university's strategic plan before beginning to form a philosophy and strategy around student-housing. He said he would hope that by May, or the end of the academic year, a plan would be in place to address student-housing moving forward.
The Student-Housing Task Force is one of four Anders created after assuming office in November to examine four pressing issues in the city — student-housing, short-term rentals, diversity and boards and commissions.
The task force addressing boards and commissions has dissolved, after completing its work in late December, with the City Council adopting new procedures earlier this month.
The Short-Term Rental Task Force held a public forum two weeks ago where residents provided feedback on an early draft ordinance regulating property that’s rented on service apps like VRBO and Airbnb. That task force is expected to hold a work session in the near future.
The Diversity Task Force has reached out to stakeholder groups, but hasn’t held a public meeting yet.
Two council members sit on each task force. On the Student-Housing Task Force sit councilmen Jay Hovey and Tommy Dawson, along with community members ranging from university affiliates to people in the student-housing business. Those members include Courtney Raville, Lady Cox, Planning Commissioner Wayne Bledsoe, Aubrey Gulledge, Ray Huff, Jack Atkins, Nick Hayes, Trey Rankin, Don Allen, Jana Jager and James Sadie, an Auburn University student.