West Campus Wear

21st and San Jacinto

So, what happens when all the houses in West Campus fall down? Informed observers of the West Campus real-estate scene agree that this is an unduly alarmist prospect. It's true, they argue, that much of the housing stock near the University of Texas is old, getting older, and not aging well. But the reality of today's West Campus - the most crowded and expensive part of the city, and yet one of the most cash-strapped - deserves a much broader view.

Nevertheless, the decay of the historic and quasi-historic rent homes that for years have made up much of the available housing in West Campus is one of the factors bringing the area to a crossroads. Most of us, whether from firsthand or secondhand knowledge, can recount tales of life in funky student squalor, in rambling houses built to occupy proper University families but lately home to too many people with too few bathrooms and far too many holes in the roof. This "natural deterioration," as Austin's building inspectors call it, recently made the news as the city slapped the University of Texas Inter-Cooperative Council
(UTICC), proprietors of many of the UT residential co-ops, with numerous code violations that could spell heavy fines or, in the unlikely worst-case scenario, demolition. The action against the UTICC is part of a campaign for more rigorous inspection and enforcement targeted to high-turnover properties such as those in West Campus.

For the UTICC, which already spends nearly a quarter of its budget on maintaining its mostly aged (60-70 years old) properties, the prospective fines and remedies are not happy news, but are necessary evils. Lower-profile property owners in West Campus, of both rent houses and apartment complexes, may not always feel such an incentive to renovate their holdings, not in a famously tight rental market where hordes of UT students would gladly pay good money to live in a tool shed. "In my mind, the owner has a fiduciary responsibility to make properties comfortable, clean, and livable for residents, but I don't think that normally happens," says George Humphrey, former city councilmember and rehabilitator of several affordable apartment complexes throughout Austin. "We have a large percentage of landlords who'll act in good faith, but also a lot of absentee landlords, and local landlords, who really don't care about these things."

Even so, Humphrey says, enough landlords will keep their properties up on principle to avoid a wholesale decimation of the West Campus housing stock. "Smart landlords will in most cases constantly renovate the property," he says. "Proper maintenance, even though it costs more in the long run, means a greater return for everyone, both economically for the owner and in better relationships between the tenants and the landlords."

Other observers note that, regardless of whether most landlords wear white or black hats, the fragmented nature of West Campus, where so many different people own so many different kinds of property, makes any single trend - like the aging of the housing stock - unlikely to transform the area. "We'll see a slow evolution, where some units are demolished, some are renovated, and some just deteriorate," says Charles Heimsath, an analyst of the Austin real-estate market.

The piecemeal ownership of West Campus is one reason, and probably the biggest one, that the area seems marooned at a time when the Austin real estate market is hitting new heights of hyperactivity. Analysts talk about 8,000 to 10,000 new rental units coming on line before the end of the decade, but none of them are going up in West Campus, where everyone wants them to be. "The problem in West Campus is that there isn't more of it," says Mike McComb, microbrewer (of Balcones Red Granite), owner of several student-housing properties, and vice-president of the University Area Partners. "You can't accumulate enough land to build the size project that lenders are willing to finance; if an institution has to do the same amount of work on a $50 million project as a $500,000 one, which are they going to finance?"

As long as current trends hold - even if rents stabilize at current levels - it would seem West Campus is headed in one of two directions. One would be gentrification a la Hyde Park, where rents become so astronomical as to drive students out completely, into the new units going up on the periphery, to be replaced by affluent non-students. Though this is certainly possible, it appears unlikely. "West Campus is already unaffordable to most students," says Heimsath. "But there are enough students who are willing to pay rents 25 percent higher than the city average in order to live close to campus."

The other alternative, which would certainly be happening now if local lenders and city planners thought differently, would be large-scale redevelopment adding several thousand units to West Campus. Economically, this would likely make better sense than wholesale building out on the fringe. "Much of Austin's current growth is from high-tech," says Humphrey, and those newcomers "aren't putting down roots here. Their capital assets are their brains. If anything happens to depress the computer business, which it inevitably will, Austin could see an exodus that matches the current boom, and we'll have a housing glut."

Yet even if there were a deluge of available units on the market, West Campus would still be in a drought, with most students relegated to far-flung complexes on the shuttle routes. To create enough housing stock in the University area to accommodate all the students who'd like to live there would mean creating a density common to the East and West Coasts, but with which most Austinites, and their city officials, are wholly unfamiliar and probably ill-prepared. "The density in Austin is only a tenth of what they have in the Northeast, so West Campus is not nearly built out to capacity," says Heimsath, "especially if Austin is truly interested in being a compact city."

While many of us, driven to vascular headache by the very thought of transiting West Campus, recoil at the prospect of it being even more crowded, McComb notes that different and better attitudes toward planning could make it work. "Classically, you figured out how many parking places you could get into your parcel, and then you built that many units," he says. "West Campus is, and should be, an urban pedestrian area, and it should have different development criteria. We don't need a place for everyone to park at the University, and at their condo, and at McDonalds. One positive thing would be a transportation system in place, such as light rail, that would make city planners change the rules and produce a zoning ordinance designed for urban redevelopment."

Given the banks' current queasiness about lending in West Campus, a more extensive city initiative, with actual development incentives for builders aiming to increase the student housing stock, might be called for. But the city's freedom to move is probably limited. "The city could reduce development fees to make the area competitive and attract more development interest," says Heimsath, "but a reinvestment strategy (such as a redevelopment authority along the East Austin model) would seemingly be impossible. You could see the headlines - `City supports kiddie condos.'"

That leaves the ball in the court of the University itself, and of the other institutions - the churches, fraternity and sorority houses, co-ops, and business tenants - that occupy West Campus. While most of these folks are even less likely to be recipients of lenders' largesse, they do control much of the land, including big chunks currently used for surface parking, which could be assembled into high-density developments. "There needs to be some sort of coming together of the neighborhood and community to find how to get better utilization of that property," McComb notes.

Some of this is happening now - the University's current master-planning process incorporates affordable campus-area housing as a major goal, and at least one campus-area church has a working site plan for developing a housing-plus-parking structure on its current parking lot. In order for West Campus to fulfill its traditional, and probably proper, role as the student community, these stakeholders will need to bring to their thinking a creativity that hasn't often characterized the Austin real estate market or, sadly, the attempt to revitalize the central city. But McComb, for one, thinks it could happen. "The problems present the opportunities," he says, "and as the opportunities become possibilities, the marketplace will come to the rescue."

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