Last month, University of Michigan President Santa Ono revealed the University’s plans to construct a new undergraduate residence hall on Elbel field, which is located southeast of the South Quad Residence Hall. It will primarily house incoming freshmen, with a proposed capacity of 2,300 students. The building’s location on Central Campus is intended to help alleviate the growing demand for on-campus housing among students.
“Demand among students for affordable, on-campus housing on or near Central Campus continues to rise,” said Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, at a Board of Regents meeting. Harmon, among other faculty members, are hopeful that the addition of the new building will help address problems of limited housing for the University’s growing student body.
With the University continuing to admit record-breaking numbers of students, this reaction does not adequately contend with the scope of the housing problem within Ann Arbor. Though much of the stagnation in housing construction in Ann Arbor is the result of city land use policy, the University has a golden opportunity to increase the number and variety of housing options available to students. Essentially, it’s time to think bigger.
The last residence hall for first-year students at the University was constructed in 1963, making the addition on Elbel the first expansion of freshman housing in about six decades. By not expanding its housing capacity and the variety of offerings, the University has left many students with no other choice than to seek off-campus housing. An astonishing 72% of students currently live off-campus, where they are left to grapple with the high rent and limited availability of housing in the Ann Arbor area. In luxury apartment complexes such as Sterling Arbor Blu, rent rates can range anywhere from $1,694 to $2,644 per month, per bedroom. Consequently, the Ann Arbor student housing market has historically been ranked as one of the most expensive in the Midwest. Although Elbel is a step in the right direction at addressing the housing crisis, it comes as a temporary solution to a deeper-rooted problem.
The new Elbel Field residence hall comes at a time when housing in Ann Arbor is as competitive as ever. With rent for a studio apartment averaging $1,684 a month and over two-thirds of apartments costing upwards of $2,000, many U-M students are searching for cheaper housing options amid the growing costs.
This search is often difficult, especially for first-year students, who have to navigate through a competitive and sometimes carnivorous housing market for the first time. The additional rooms and living spaces that the dorm on Elbel Field will offer for students who choose to stay in on-campus housing, however, will make the market better even for students who choose to live off campus. The fact that 2,300 fewer students will be bidding up the price of off-campus housing will surely assuage pain to renters caused by the supply-constrained Ann Arbor housing market, at least initially. As long as the number of the entering freshman class continues to outpace the construction of new housing units, though, the core problem will not be solved.
For the 2022-23 school year, the average monthly cost of on-campus housing for a double room setup is just under $1,172 dollars (or $10,545 for a nine month period). Though this cost is cheaper than the average Ann Arbor apartment, it is still around $600 greater than the state average. And for upperclassmen who cannot find a spot in the dorms, there are a limited number of affordable choices — almost none of which are sponsored by the University.
The Ann Arbor Cooperative Houses are an inexpensive option for housing, but the Inter-Cooperative Council at Ann Arbor comprises of just 16 houses throughout the city. The University has a similar option in Henderson House, a cooperative residence under MHousing that offers the social and practical amenities of an off-campus house and was designed explicitly for sophomores, upperclassmen and graduate students. However, Henderson House has a capacity of just 28 students. This is a living situation that could appeal to many upperclassmen and could be made more affordable than dorm-living — as residents are responsible for maintaining the house — if the University were to expand it.
While incoming first-year students are somewhat sheltered from the housing problem, the University’s growing student population and the failure of University infrastructure to properly respond to it has resulted in many sophomores and upperclassmen struggling to find on-campus living. With roughly 97% of incoming freshmen choosing to live in residence halls, accommodation for others cannot be guaranteed. Space limitations placed the University in a difficult spot last fall when they had to deny placement of more than 2,300 returning students in the dorms.
This last figure is perhaps the most prescient point of this entire discussion; many current off-campus students want to live on campus. Additionally, those who don’t want to live on campus as a second-year or beyond are not averse for reasons of facilities or location, but because the University can not offer many of the intimate and pro-social living arrangements found in shared houses and apartments. Many of the Michigan Learning Communities offer this social environment — the guarantee of a stable community into a student’s sophomore year — and see students remain in the community beyond their freshman year at a higher frequency than in traditional dorms. Even then, the University only offers 10, some of which are specialized to an academic discipline or require a competitive application process.
This is not unique to on-campus housing at the University of Michigan. Nationwide, universities have heterogeneous approaches to on-campus housing. From traditional dormitory living for freshmen, to apartments with kitchenettes for upperclassmen, there are plenty of ways that the University can make on-campus housing options more diverse. The Stockwell, North Quad and Fletcher Residence Halls have historically followed this model, catering their offerings and services to upperclassmen.
If there were more tenable on-campus options for upperclassmen, such as university-sponsored cooperative houses, more Michigan Learning Communities or more on-campus apartments for undergraduates, students would be able to both live with friends while also not being subject to the cut-throat nature of the Ann Arbor housing market.
A substantial increase in the variety and capacity of on-campus housing is, of course, a years-long endeavor. Nevertheless it is useful to set goals for our administrators as they consider the University’s place within a rapidly changing Ann Arbor. The new construction on Elbel Field is a good start to solving a dire problem and well worth the $6.5 million price tag.
Despite a nationwide dip in recent years, a near record number of Americans are attending college. Ever expanding application pools, especially to the nation’s most selective schools, have proven difficult to accommodate. After announcing the Elbel Field residence hall, Ono explained to The Michigan Daily that since 2004, undergraduate enrollment at the University has grown by 8,000 students.
Universities are not strangers to capacity problems. The University of California, Berkeley notably had its 2022-2023 enrollment temporarily frozen at 2020-2021 levels after a lawsuit from environmental groups. Berkeley’s housing crisis was a prime motivator for the freeze. Paired with a precipitously declining acceptance rate, the University of Michigan must contend with its place in a growing, gentrifying Ann Arbor. The University is responsible for much of Ann Arbor’s cultural and financial wealth, but its presence poses unique public challenges. Until this reckoning, though, the University ought to meet the satiable demand of its students: a new and varied housing stock to meet the needs of a growing community.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this piece stated the average monthly cost of on-campus housing for a double room was just under $1,300. The figure has been updated to exclude the cost of a meal plan and account for the nine-month contract period.