FARGO — There was a time North Dakota State University dorms were so full that hundreds of students had to live in hotels.
NDSU has made significant investments in student housing since the late 2000s, and enrollment has dropped by about 1,000 students from 2014 to 2018.
This year, on-campus housing likely will be about 90% full, said Rian Nostrum, university director of residence life. A 10% vacancy rate may seem high, but he says it gives NDSU an option to be more flexible with space for students who don't want roommates, he said.
"The fuller the better, maybe not to the extreme of 2008," he said, referring to the year 400 students had to live in hotels.
Last year, about 9,900 students, or about 72% of the fall enrollment total of 13,796, lived off campus.
Vacancy rates for off-campus rentals in north Fargo have increased in recent years, convincing some that Fargo has overbuilt on apartments. June’s rental vacancy rate for north Fargo was 11.6%, compared with a citywide vacancy rate of 8%, according to Appraisal Services Inc.
Still, developers see a need to build apartments for students in north Fargo, according to Jim Gilmour, the city of Fargo's director of strategic planning and research. The Roosevelt neighborhood, which borders the NDSU campus, could see more proposals for large apartment complexes, particularly along University Drive and 12th Avenue North, Gilmour said.
But neighborhood residents are concerned that the need for apartments could threaten the history and landscape of Roosevelt, said Ken Enockson, a member of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association.
Some feel that way of life was threatened by city leaders approving plans this year for a 85-unit, market-rate apartment building to be attached to St. Paul’s Catholic Newman Center at 1119 University Drive N.
"I perceive it as our most at-risk neighborhood, in that its character is most likely to be challenged significantly and may change forever,” City Commissioner John Strand said.
By the numbers
It doesn't appear NDSU plans to build anymore student housing, Nostrum said. Most recently, Catherine Cater Hall opened to sophomores this semester.
“When I think of our current needs, I don’t see us needing a residence hall in the near future,” he said. “I think Cater Hall really took care of where we saw our biggest gap.”
The dip in student enrollment bucked the roughly 40% growth NDSU has seen over the last 20 years.
The Roosevelt neighborhood has long been home to renters and college students. In 2010, about 77% of the neighborhood was renter-occupied, according to the city of Fargo.
John Bultman, owner of Bass Auto near NDSU, has six homes with 12 units that he's rented for more than 30 years. The rentals usually fill up by the start of school, sometimes with students.
He's concerned larger apartment buildings will pop up in residential areas as people sell their homes or rental properties. “It’s becoming commercial, and the writing is on the wall,” he said, noting the changes he's seen over the last 50 years.
There are claims some owners have let their rentals fall apart so developers can buy the property, demolish the homes and build apartments. Enockson said some landlords are having trouble finding tenants to fill their rental houses.
Roers, the developer behind the apartments attached to the Newman Center, has noted a trend of renters wanting safer, more secure buildings, Roers Director Danielle Paulus said. That input played a role in developing the apartments attached to the Newman Center.
“This is one reason why we are seeing renters choosing those options versus houses or apartments that don’t have those amenities,” she said.
Still a lot to save
Roosevelt residents have criticized the city for allowing an apartment complex the size of the one attached to the Newman Center to be built near their homes. The neighborhood association and city leaders agreed several years ago to keep apartment complexes along Dakota Drive, known as the university mixed-use (UMU) area.
“We gave up over a fourth of our neighborhood to create the UMU district for the purposes of building high-density student housing,” said Harold Thompsen, a member of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association.
Building multi-family units along University Drive would help the rest of the neighborhood transition its rental houses into single-family units, Mayor Tim Mahoney said. He attributed some of the break-ins and drug-related crime to blighted homes in the area, but he said working to eliminate the deteriorated homes will help reduce crime.
City leaders have made efforts to listen to the neighborhood, including attending association meetings, Mahoney said. "We're hearing them, but we can't go back to single-family homes in some areas," he said. "It just will not work. It doesn't pencil out."
There are good rental owners, Enockson said. He owns one himself, and he feels he has to take care of his property out of respect for his neighbors. “I have to be responsible to my neighbors because they are watching,” he said.
The city has shown interest in buying vacant lots, especially in older neighborhoods like Roosevelt, for the development of affordable housing. Mahoney also suggested the city should look into grants that would help turn rental houses into single-family homes.
Thompsen agrees rental houses in residential areas should be converted into permanent single-family homes.
“I understand NDSU’s need. That has been a part of our DNA,” Thompsen said, but he advocated for better planning that would bring “stability, predictability and sustainability.”
The city wants input from Roosevelt residents as it forms its plans for core neighborhoods, Mahoney said. As long as residents offer that input, the city will listen, he said.
Strand said there is still a lot of character to save in Roosevelt.
“We don’t need to throw in the towel because we’ve lost so much,” he said.