Student Housing is Hot Issue

Efforts to create jobs, bolster the economy and enhance the workforce of Salina and Saline County, are coming to fruition.

Hundreds of jobs are being added and professionals are eyeing a move to town. Meanwhile, enrollment is growing at local learning institutions, meeting employer needs for a highly trained workforce.

Countering so much good that’s happening, however, is a gnawing issue — not enough places to live.

It begs repeat of a saying that sprang from President Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828: “To the victor goes the spoils.”

Folks are moving here to work and learn, but there are not enough vacancies. Residence halls are loaded and there are few options for rental housing that students can afford.

“We need more on-campus housing because there isn’t a whole lot of quality off-campus housing for students,” said Alysia Starkey, PhD, CEO and dean at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, Salina.

This year’s freshman class is up approximately 20 percent over the past five years, she said.

“It’s a good problem to have. The community is growing,” said Matt Thompson, PhD, president of Kansas Wesleyan University, with 803 students — 12 percent over last year — and 396 living on campus.

“It’s a confluence of so many good things happening, the vibrancy of downtown Salina,” he said. “It’s attracting students who want to be here.”

KWU requires that students spend their first two years living on campus.

Many wish to move off when the requirement is met, Thompson said, but “those opportunities are getting tight right now. It’s just a tighter housing market anyway in Salina.”

Some educational institutions don’t have the luxury of offering housing for their growing enrollments, such as the KU schools of medicine and nursing in downtown Salina, and Salina Technical College.

“Housing is one of those issues that is going to be a problem for the long-term success of any of the colleges in the community,” said Greg Nichols, president of Salina Tech.

Being a non-residential campus, KU students in Salina must secure their own housing, said Lisa Larson, PhD, RN, dean of the KU School of Nursing located in downtown Salina.

While her nursing students have had “reasonable success finding housing” in Salina, she said there are other issues.

“I think the most important criteria for them is a reasonable cost for being a college student for a certain quality of living conditions,” Larson said. “Sometimes they may find something they can afford, but it may not be a desirable place to live. That balance between costs and having a good living quality in a residence probably needs to be explored further in Salina.”

Preferences vary between the nursing school and the KU School of Medicine, also located in downtown Salina.

“With the medical school, you’re more likely to have some of the students who are married and maybe even have families, and some prefer more solitary studying, and may wish to live by themselves,” she said. “Nursing students are more likely to study in groups often and may seek to have roommates and help them study and work on assignments.”

Proximity to class and clinical training sites is important to both schools.

“There are a lot of rentals, but not a lot of desirable rentals, sad to say,” Larson said.

Needs are only going to grow. The nursing program has a total enrollment of 36, but will meet its maximum capacity of 48 students next year, she said, while the med school has 34 students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not caused much a problem for K-State Poly’s on-campus housing, Starkey said.

“It’s not playing a role,” she said. “Some (students) requested single rooms, but most are in doubles. It’s not having an impact for us.”

On-campus housing demand comes from younger students.

“Freshmen and sophomores like to stay on campus. Juniors and seniors usually go and get housing off campus,” Starkey said. “Access to affordable and quality housing in Salina is lacking, whether it’s apartments or houses.”

K-State Poly has 190 beds on campus, and an enrollment of approximately 600.

Some pupils from Salina Technical College next door, are staying at K-State Poly.

Some 40 K-State students are living in barracks at St. Francis Ministries, formerly St. John’s Military School, in North Salina.

“We have considered whether to build residence halls or campus housing, but we are finding that students would rather live in some type of apartment, where they don’t have as much shared space,” Nichols said.

The technical college has 659 high school students taking dual credit and concurrent classes. Of its adult enrollment of 400 a year, 207 come from out of the area and must rent living space in Salina.

“If they can’t find suitable housing at an affordable rate, they’re probably not coming to Salina Tech,” Nichols said, “and they’re probably looking at some of our peer institutions.”

Despite being competitors, Salina’s colleges are working together for solutions.

K-State is studying the feasibility of adding on-campus housing, Starkey said.

“We’ve also has conversations with a few developers in town about some partnership arrangements between our campus and leasing some space,” she said. “We’re trying to see if it’s better to build more living space on campus or leasing from developers. It’s a great opportunity because our campus sits on an Opportunity Zone.”

Those zones were developed by the federal government to encourage investment in low-income areas, said Eric Brown, president and CEO of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce.

“If someone invests in an Opportunity Zone, either all of some of their capital gains may be deferred,” he said, and the longer those gains are deferred, the lower the tax.

“It will attract investors who have capital gains to mitigate,” Brown said.

Local colleges have been working together in their search for housing solutions.

“It’s what I love about Salina. It’ such a collaborative community,” KWU’s Thompson said. “The fact we’re talking about addressing housing need is just another asset for this community.”

The issue is essential, said Nichols of Salina Tech.

“We realize that if we want growth, we’re gonna have to address housing issues,” he said. “If there is no housing available in our community, it’s going to be a deterrent to our enrollment, and in turn, it will affect our workforce.”

Education, Nichols said, “is an important part of our community.”