With architecture, there’s always a story. And that story usually has something to do with money.
The story about Aspire at West Campus begins with Hawkeye Court and Hawkeye Drive, which bill themselves as “an affordable alternative to residence hall life.” Their affordability has meant that they are home to large numbers of graduate students (many of them international students) and families. But, they were originally built in 1968 and are in need of renovation to stay open.
Dr. Tom Rocklin, Vice President of Student Life at the university, told me last year that when he began to consider plans for repairing or replacing the apartments, he hoped to be able to provide new or renovated apartments that would rent for about the same amount as current housing. Replacing affordable housing for graduate students with more affordable housing seemed like it was, at least initially, a priority to the administration.
The university administration started working with the Scion Group—a consulting firm with an agenda—on this project as early as 2009 in order to help them form a plan for renovating or replacing Hawkeye Court and Hawkeye Drive. The Scion Group made two moves that led directly to the replacement of at-cost public university housing with a private, for-profit, development that describes itself as “an exclusive community designed to meet the lifestyle needs of today’s student.” First, they provided the administration with a report indicating that renovation was next to impossible: Dr. Von Stange, Assistant Vice President of Student Life, summarized the findings in a meeting with me on March 5, 2013 as indicating that students would not accept the higher rents necessary to cover the cost of renovating the apartments for the (admittedly) spartan units. Second, their research indicated that students were willing to pay “a little bit more” for apartments with better amenities.
The research that revealed student housing desires took the form of focus groups, one of which my neighbors attended. In his words, “They kept asking me whether I was willing to pay a little bit more for all of these amenities, and I kept asking, How much is a little bit? And they wouldn’t give me an answer.” Indeed, the answer to that question was very difficult to extract from anyone involved in this project.
During the lead-up to the approval of the contract, my neighbors and I asked, again and again, how much the new apartments would rent for—and we never got an answer. The response was always, “They’ll be market-rate.” The truth is: The university didn’t know.
Dr. Rocklin presented the contract for final approval at the March 13, 2013 Board of Regents meeting without knowing how much the apartments were going to cost. I spoke at that meeting and pointed out, very clearly, that the university did not know how much the apartments were going to rent for. And yet the Board of Regents approved the measure (eight to none, with one abstention) without knowing how much the apartments were going to cost. After researching “market-rates” in Iowa City, I estimated them at $650 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Dr. Rocklin, when asked by a regent at the meeting, estimated them at $750. These generous estimates were still too low.
A few weeks ago, to the complete shock of residents in university housing, rental rates for the new apartments, Aspire at West Campus, were finally released and they were far from affordable—coming in at nearly double the current rates: $875 per month for a one bedroom apartment or between $950 and $1100 for a two bedroom. That’s quite a hike from the $435 residents have been paying for a one bedroom in 2012-3 ($480 for a two bedroom). And since I know the price of a one-bedroom rental, it seems clear that the reason that no one would answer my neighbor’s question—how much is a little bit more?—is that the answer is, roughly, double. Double the increase for a renovated apartment and double the current rent.
The Scion Group specializes in a particular kind of campus consulting: the upsell. A quick survey of the consulting firm’s self-published track record on their website gives a sense of their priorities: In projects for Columbia College, DePaul University and Roosevelt University in Chicago, their track record states that they “introduce[ed] unit types and pricing far beyond what had existed in the market”; at Illinois Institute of Technology, they “market[ed] a product priced 40 percent higher than other on-campus housing”; and their project at Rutgers was “among the most expensive on-campus option.” To this impressive track record, they will now be able to add that at the University of Iowa, their consultation ended up producing a project priced 100 percent above rental rates during the year in which the project was approved.
And while I have no doubt that this is good for public/private business partnerships—it makes the potential return of Balfour Beatty Campus Solutions, the company that secured the contract to build and manage the apartments, significantly higher than it might have been had a more modest and affordable plan been approved—the net result is the displacement of a community. It is a transient community, to be sure, but families that made ends meet by trading babysitting duties, and students who gain a sense of solidarity by being surrounded by other students and student-families in similar economic circumstances will now be dispersed throughout the city, unable to afford a place in this new, “exclusive” community.
Brian Prugh is a resident of Hawkeye Court and an MFA candidate in painting. He writes art criticism for Little Village and is the co-founder of the Iowa City Arts Review. More information on the housing development at Hawkeye Court can be found on his website at brianprugh.com/housing-project/.