I'll never forget the day my father dropped me off at Auburn for my freshman year. (It was a while ago before the turn of the millennium).
We pushed through the front door of my new "home" — a drab two-bedroom unit (for four people) with cinder block walls and a tiny kitchen and bathroom.
We knocked on the door to what would be "my" room and were greeted by my roommate, who sprang up into a sitting position in his bed next to a nightstand littered with empty beer cans.
"Hi. I guess we'll be rooming together."
I lived in the CDV Extension that first year. It wasn't all bad. Sure, the rooms were cramped, but I generally got along with my roommate. Not so much with our suite-mates, though.
But we were all assigned and stuck under the same roof, as it were.
The location was ideal — a short walk to classes, to Mom's Party Shoppe a block away. And game days were always exciting as RVs populated the lawn outside our complex.
Each unit had its own entrance, an added bonus unlike other student-housing options that granted us a little bit of freedom. We could have people visit at any hour. We had full-sized refrigerators. It wasn't that hard to throw a party. We filled the daytime hours throwing a Frisbee or kicking around a hacky sack in the greenspace between buildings.
Those are some of the benefits that made living in the CDV Extension bearable. That said, I generally took every opportunity to go hang out with friends who lived off-campus, who had a little less supervision (no RAs) and more freedom.
I imagine that students who lived in The Hill or Quad generally felt the same way.
In subsequent years, I moved off-campus to apartments and eventually landed with my own pad in a trailer park down Wire Road.
Having my own private space and room to stretch out and entertain friends was a huge upgrade over the cramped on-campus living style of my freshman year.
That's why some of the main takeaways from a recent series of focus groups gauging students' thoughts on student housing came as no surprise.
Even now, more than 20 years after I moved into Auburn, students want pretty much the same thing and are willing to make similar concessions to get what they want.
Some of the more interesting takeaways from the groups include that cottages and houses are the most desirable housing options for students and that they held mixed feelings about the larger private dormitory complexes that have sprung up over the past several years, even though the complexes come with a number of amenities, like weight rooms.
"It would be really neat to see more housing, like four to eight people houses; big house culture ... is certainly very appealing to students here," said a student in a comment shared with the Student Housing Task Force.
The students preferred cottages and houses because they afforded "private space, ease of parking and choice of roommate." The students' concerns about private dormitories included "construction quality, long-term occupancy rates when no longer 'new,' non-local management, poor cleaning/maintenance, and traffic safety."
Over the past several years, developers have stepped in and built plenty of both products on both sides of the spectrum — the high-rise student complexes and what the city now calls Academic Detached Dwelling Units, which feature what amounts to a private dormitory type setup with the freedom of a standalone dwelling.
The most appealing location to build ADDUs to provide more product that meets students' preferred housing type and desired amenities would probably be in the Urban Neighborhood – West District between Wright Street and Donahue Drive.
But a new "house culture" is unlikely to take hold in Auburn — property values are too high in most areas close to campus to justify building newer standalone homes instead of complexes.
For developers, that area of UN-W is the most appealing to build private dormitory complexes; it permits buildings to be 75 feet tall instead of the shorter maximum height restrictions in Urban Neighborhoods East and South, where private dormitories are permitted by right and conditionally.
As a result, it's likely that many of the older homes, townhouses and apartment complexes in that UN-W area will eventually be replaced by sprawling private dormitory complexes built by out-of-town developers looking to cash in for a few years and then dash, and not with the standalone ADDU or cottage housing developments preferred by students.
"I left the city to come to Auburn," said one student. "That's what really kills me, and I think that we lose some of that with some of the new housing," said a student, referring to the loss of the small-town feel, which other participants in the focus groups thought was undermined by the tall private dormitory buildings.
The Student-Housing Task Force heard the results of the focus groups at a recent meeting. The question now is what should the city's role be in molding the city's student-housing stock to meet student needs.
The task force now has one important tool to use to figure that out with the results of the focus groups, although it would probably benefit from getting a larger sample since only 34 students participated.
The task force also needs another important input to chart a measured path — projected enrollment at Auburn University in the years to come.
If the university's enrollment is set to increase significantly over the coming years, the city should think hard about possibly shifting its incentives and regulations to promote the construction of more students-preferred housing (ADDUs/cottages) and less of the high-rise private dormitories.