Over 40% of Harrisonburg's population is made up of college students

In 2015, it was estimated that over 40% of Harrisonburg's population was comprised of college students.

While JMU brings tourism and job opportunities to Harrisonburg, it also brings a shortage of affordable living for long-term residents. As the student population grows and off-campus student housing booms, the cost of rent for long-term residents of Harrisonburg has become increasingly unaffordable.

A rise in rent further pushes marginalized community members away, as this renting barrier predominantly affects the elderly and people with disabilities — 14.3% of the population according to the 2010 census. Most are on fixed incomes or have minimum wage salaries, making their eligibility to buy a home more difficult. Michael Wong, the Harrisonburg Housing and Redevelopment director, has seen an increase in rent prices that displace individuals.

“The answer to addressing homelessness is having housing,” Wong said. “If there’s not housing available or the rent is increasing higher due to the supply and demand, then it pushes out the most vulnerable populations.”

Yet, the rent prices are anticipated to rise as the student population, and the number of higher rent complexes, grows. Given the limited number of better apartment units within the city — considering the mature properties are modest and without amenities — the market area rental housing demand, is some cases, outpaces the supply.

Harrisonburg’s population increased by nearly 18,000 from 2000 to 2015, while JMU enrollment increased by 5,000 during that period, rendering it approximately 28% responsible for the total population growth.

Beginning as early as 2005, an oversupply of student-oriented apartment units surfaced in the city. At this time, JMU limited student enrollment growth until new classroom space and other university infrastructure could be built to fully serve the student population.

A study in 2015 showed that the non-student higher rent apartment market was considered to be at near full occupancy and a pent-up demand for new units existed. With an overbuilt student apartment market, the “spin-off” effect is leading to higher vacancies in the local conventional housing market. Without the new student bed inventory, enrollment growth at the university puts added pressure on the city’s housing stock, which generates pressure for higher rent prices.

These accelerating rent prices may also trickle down to student housing. Wong said most other college towns in the state, including Charlottesville and Blacksburg, have experienced similar trends.

In 2015, over 40% of the City’s population was estimated to be college students, with 25% of the City’s housing units occupied by students. Of the new housing complexes built in the City since 2000, 43% were built with intention to be rented to students.

Although 2018 was the first year it didn’t increase in population growth, the university has grown in previous years. Wong said if new affordable housing isn’t developed, not only will prices increase, but there will be a limited supply of availability and increased competition between students.

“That means that the new students coming in have to compete with the availability of affordable housing in our local area,” Wong said. “It’s anticipated that rents are going to increase due to the supply and demand issue.”

In addition to the increase in student headed households in the city as a percentage of renters is the increase of the Hispanic population. In 1990, 58% of households in Harrisonburg were rented. This increased to 60% in 2000 and over 63% by 2010.

The presence of college students who live off campus inflates the community’s poverty rate, according to the United States Census Bureau. The site says “of the 2,437 counties in the U.S. with populations above 10,000, 8.7% had statistically notable decreases in their poverty rate when off-campus college students are excluded.” None of the counties saw their poverty rates increase in that scenario.

A study by the bureau that used data from 2012-2016 showed that there was a 15.3 % difference between those impoverished in Harrisonburg and those impoverished in Harrisonburg excluding off-campus housing students.

In 2015, a demographic and market analysis by Harrisonburg development displayed that the city has a large low-income renter population due to the students and other blue collar workers. The market area’s older adult population also continued to increase steadily. The study showed there was a pent-up demand for better rental housing, in addition to a decrease of homeownership within the city.

“For people who can’t afford it, a lot of times they go to substandard housing or they have to live somewhere else where they can afford housing and then travel into work,” Wong said.

A lack of land within the city exists to accommodate new adult population housing developments. With the university adding students each year without increasing the on-campus residential capacity, the problem is exacerbated.

In 2015, it was estimated that only 17.2% of renters have incomes exceeding $61,700 in the City. The saturation of the housing market with student-oriented housing, and an increasing demand to live near downtown, often comes at the expense to families.

“When you have students residing in traditional family neighborhoods, you see clashing lifestyles and friction,” Adam Fletcher, director of community development, said.

The price per acre a developer could pay to build single-family homes is much lower than if somebody were buying the same land to build student housing on it. This is due to density: Three or four single-family homes could fit on one acre, or the same acre could supply space for 12 to 15 student housing rentals. If a developer is going to be building at a higher density, they can then afford to pay more for the land.

“If there were not a growing student population and always a desire for more and newer student housing, then it’s possible that some of that land might have been purchased by developers that might have built housing that would not have been student housing,” Scott Rogers, a realtor from Funkhouser Real Estate Group, said.

Rogers said over the past 10 years, student housing developments have been built at a faster rate than the student body has grown. This has resulted in some of the older student housing complexes no longer being rented to students.

“Students want to go to that new complex, so you see a different demographic start moving into the older apartment complexes,” Fletcher said.

Rogers said there are a few housing complexes “some students wouldn’t realize used to be student housing.” These include Madison Manor and University Place Condos. Rogers also noted that Hunter’s Ridge and Camden Townes have seen an increase in non-college students living in the properties.

There are three basic components of the rental housing market: student designed housing, non-student apartment complexes and renters in the for-sale housing stock. The 38% estimate in 2014 of students in non-traditional student housing affects the market for the various type of rental housing.

There was a time when landlords could buy off-campus houses intending to rent to students who could pay high rent prices. Due to current zoning restrictions, this is no longer permitted, and the cost of renting in Harrisonburg continues to rise.

As of March 12, the city of Harrisonburg now permits short term rentals, namely AirBnB's. This opportunity allows for more revenue than long-term rentals and helps tourism, yet according to Fletcher, may drive up housing costs.

Contact Mary Harrison at harri4mj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

Mary Harrison is a junior media arts and design and English double major. She's passionate about politics and enjoys reading in the sun. Mary loves traveling and adventures, and plans to move to a big city someday.