Published September 7th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
They had just moved in when the basement flooded with sewage.
Fabian Rosales and his two roommates are currently living in an Airbnb while repairs are made on their rental house in Lawrence, Kansas. Thankfully, they convinced their landlord to foot the bill.
Aside from its current state, the house is everything Rosales wanted for his senior year at the University of Kansas.
It’s just blocks away from campus and the space will allow the three roommates to spread out should they face another semester of online classes.
“All three of us the last few years have been living in apartments and we were just kind of getting tired of it,” Rosales said. “The apartments we lived in weren’t the best quality wise.”
His last place sported stained carpets and only a few windows, which lost all natural light by 3 p.m. It was relatively cheap at $400 per month. But was he getting what he paid for?
According to a 2020 ranking by Apartment Guide, Columbia, Missouri, and Lawrence ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, as most affordable college towns. But updated statistics for 2021 put Lawrence in the seventh slot, and Columbia tied for fourth with Manhattan, Kansas.
The 60 city study compared universities in the so-called “power conferences” (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) and averaged rental prices for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments to determine rank.
Columbia averaged $499 per bedroom a month and Lawrence wasn’t far behind, coming in at $519 per bedroom per month.
So what’s the catch?
At such prices, student housing can end up being outdated, dirty and in need of repair. Many students feel as though landlords profit on their need to be close to campus and general naivete when it comes to looking at property.
Not only that, but when most of the affordable housing is marketed towards students who can often rely on a parent to cosign or to pay their rent entirely, it can make low-income housing hard to find for those in need.
So what does living in one of the cheapest college towns look like?
Audrey Currier is a first-year renter and a sophomore at the University of Missouri whose housing situation is commensurate with the study. She lives at The Den (a student apartment complex) south of campus in Columbia and pays just $331 a month for her furnished room and bathroom in a four-bedroom apartment.
Overall, Currier said she’s pretty happy with her living situation. Her apartment floor sags a little and the kitchen faucet drips, but it works. Some friends who live in the complex had a faucet head fall off and a problem with their refrigerator, so it’s not perfect, she said, but it’s still nice.
“I’d say (it’s) not great quality. They make it look cute on the outside but I’m not sure it’s the greatest quality,” Currier said.
The biggest concession she made in choosing the complex is its distance from the university. It takes Currier five minutes to drive to her campus parking lot, and then she has about a mile-and-a-half walk to her nearest class. Currier said she doesn’t mind it though, and that a large portion of university students have similar commutes to campus.
Mizzou delegates parking passes by class, so as Currier gets older that long walk to class will get shorter.
“Since I’m just a sophomore, I don’t get good parking,” Currier said.
Apartments closer to campus were just too expensive.
Columbia has neighborhoods bordering its campuses like South Park, with older rental homes for students. These can be fairly affordable, but as a first time renter, Currier wanted the security and amenities of an apartment complex.
On-campus housing is also an option, but undergraduate apartments through the university run more than $1,000 per month. And why pay those prices for dorm 2.0 when a luxury apartment downtown is a similar chunk of change.
The Brookside apartments downtown market themselves as student living with great amenities like coffee machines, flat screen televisions and granite countertops. Apartments.com estimates Brookside rent is between $749-$1,199 per person.
These complexes are marketed as luxury student apartments and certainly bring the cost-per-room averages up in each town. But there seems to be a lack of middle ground between the high-end and the rundown, or far-from-campus complexes that remain.
Rosales said location was the most important factor in his apartment search. But he and his roommates had to stay on a budget too as all three work part-time jobs, in addition to being students, in order to pay for rent.
Even with his rent at around $430, it’s still almost 50% of his paychecks.
“I feel like a lot of (properties) don’t really take into consideration that there are students who have to pay for a lot of their own stuff,” Rosales said.
When cost factors heavily in the search, it can mean tenants are willing to overlook certain things in the house, like the holes Rosales has in his bedroom floorboards, because they don’t really have a choice.
Affordability and proximity are two huge things on a renter’s search list, meaning there’s no time to waste in the hunt. For Rosales, the search for his current home began in the fall of last year and the three housemates signed a lease in April after many discouraging house tours.
“It was tough to find a good place,” Rosales said.
Zillow pictures can sometimes catfish people into thinking they’ve found a great place. Rosales said he and his roommates toured several houses that looked great online but were less than desirable in person.
One house, he remembers, listed four bedrooms, but the final room was in the property’s unfinished basement.
“It still had cement flooring, the walls were unpainted and they still counted it as a bedroom,” Rosales said.
Such circumstances are certainly not ideal, but they’re livable conditions.
Leigh Kottwitz, the neighborhood services manager with the City of Columbia, said 28,000 rental units and 10,000 buildings are registered with the city and pass its inspections.
This means the city (to the best of its ability) ensures units are up to code and in livable condition. And livable conditions mean just that. These inspections check for things like mold presence and working doors, not whether or not the carpet is stained.
Kottwitz said a lot of problems in the rental industry come from unrealistic expectations.
Often, students expect more from their property even if it doesn’t align with the price they are paying or the age of the unit.
“There’s just such a wide range,” Kottwitz said. “In Columbia we’ve got a lot of new student housing, but certainly there’s a lot of older structures too and sometimes those are very appealing because of their proximity to campus.”
Landlords range as much in variety and responsibility as student tenants do. Kottwitz said it can be a mixed bag for both parties.
“Just because you’re getting a higher education doesn’t necessarily mean that you always make wise choices and are respectful to the property that you’re renting,” Kottwitz said. “Some of these landlords, if they’ve been around a while, might have had some bad experiences and it’s possible that they might be a bit cautious because they’ve maybe seen some bad tenants over the years.”
Tenants need to be more aware of their rights and responsibilities. Kottwitz believes increased tenant-landlord knowledge could go a long way in preventing many of the issues people have with housing, especially for first-time tenants.
“It seems like there is always a lot of talk about tenant rights,” Kottwitz said. “So especially students (need to) realize that, hey, they need to advocate better for themselves.”
She also advises tenants to let their landlords know what is wrong with a property rather than let an issue fester until it is too late and they have lost their deposit. Effective communication between parties can go a long way.
“You have a right to live in a well-maintained place, but you also have a responsibility to communicate when there is a problem, to pay rent on time, to respect the property,” Kottwitz said.
Communication was a problem for recent University of Kansas graduate Grace Jones, who has since moved to Los Angeles. After being exposed to the housing market outside of the Midwest, Jones said Lawrence is cheap, but the management isn’t always great.
“Lawrence being a college town is just such a weird mix of people,” Jones said. “There’s either those companies that own half the apartment complexes around town or it’s parents who have bought into apartments and just sublease to their friends now.”
During Jones’ junior year of college, she ended up in a property owned by Midwest Property Management, one of those “owns-half-the-town” type of property managers. The rent was cheap. In a four-bedroom apartment, Jones was only paying $400 a month.
“That’s so cheap, but once you got there, they were never in the office when they said they’d be,” Jones said. “Our washing machine and dryer were broken the entire year, they’d say they were coming to fix it and it would never work.”
As a student tenant, Jones said she just never expected to get a deposit back at the end of the lease.
“It just feels like in those places you have to walk in knowing you’re not going to get your deposit back and they’re going to charge you for the smallest stuff when you leave because that’s where they make their money it feels like,” Jones said.
For tenants afraid of losing their deposits, communication is the key to success.
A landlord doesn’t live in the units, so it’s impossible for them to know about every scuff on the wall, or problems in the apartment if the tenants don’t communicate. Shawna Neuner, the president of the Columbia Apartment Association, said she advises tenants to do walk-throughs with their landlords at the start and end of the lease to document any imperfections.
It’s simply not fair to paint all landlords as deposit thieves.
“Landlords are people, so you can’t stereotype a landlord any more than any other population,” Neuner said. “We are business people and we do have expenses, so the best thing I can say is talk to the landlord. Find out what their goals are when you move out.”
Neuner stressed again the importance of communication for an effective tenant-landlord relationship.
“The biggest way to improve everything is just to work on communication and finding that method that works with you and your landlord,” Neuner said.
It’s important to note too, that the housing and rental market is ever changing. Neuner said when enrollment is down, landlords have vacancies. When Mizzou joined the SEC, shiny new complexes were built which drove up rental competition.
Recently, with classes in an online format due to the pandemic, Neuner said the association dealt with tenants who didn’t want to pay rent while they were living at home rather than in their campus apartment. Neuner said the same thing happens in a normal year when students move home for the summer not realizing they had to keep paying for the year-long lease they signed.
“Even just realizing that the contract you signed is truly binding,” Neuner emphasized. “If you decide you want to move in with your boyfriend (for example), there’s going to be consequences for that choice.”
Affordable housing in these towns is a problem for more than just students.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority serves some non-traditional and emancipated students, but mostly works with lower income families and individuals to help find affordable housing in town. Because a lot of housing in Lawrence is geared towards students, the authority’s executive director, Shannon Oury, said it can mean lower-income residents are competing against students who are usually backed by a parent’s income.
Oury said about 70% of the households the housing authority serves are at or below 30% of the area median income of $64,233 per year.
“It’s considered extremely low,” Oury said. “So it’s very difficult for them to compete against students.”
The Housing Authority owns some property it can lease to households in need, but it also works with local landlords to house people under Section 8 housing vouchers. In recent years, Oury said the authority lost close to 100 landlords who would accept section 8 vouchers, which has made it difficult to find homes for those in need.
The landlords aren’t to blame for the lack of affordable housing in Lawrence. Oury said property managers are just trying to make a living, and it’s not fair to villainize them.
“The landlords have a piece of this, right, because most of them have mortgages that they’re also trying to make,” Oury said. “They don’t want to lose their property and their investment.”
No one party is at fault, but from Oury’s perspective, it’s hard to tout Lawrence as such an affordable place to live based on her work.
She said 50% of all renters pay up to 50% of their income towards a lease, which is substantially more than the 30% most budgeting guidelines recommend.
“There’s only two sides to that problem: what you pay and what you earn,” Oury said. “We need to figure out a way to fix at least one of those.”
“The city is really actually committed to trying to figure out how we might be able to do this,” Oury said.
As one of the three basic needs, housing will always be a big topic.
“There are so many facets of affordable housing. It’s all the way from homelessness to people who want to be a homeowner but can’t buy in this market,” Oury said. “There is way bigger problem than we’re a solution for.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.