Collum: SHU Student Renters Could Boost Commercial Areas, Projects

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Off-campus student housing has long been an area of tension between Seton Hall University and other South Orange residents, but Village President Sheena Collum, a Seton Hall alum, is hoping that can change.

At the July 25 South Orange Board of Trustees meeting, Collum reported that the Village has been working with Seton Hall on a student housing survey and needs assessment.

Collum said that the Board of Trustees had been working with the Planning and Zoning Committee through Trustee Mark Rosner and Village Planner Phil Abramson “on roles our code enforcement can take when our single family homes are being turned into de facto boarding houses.” Collum noted one particularly egregious instance where a private property owner had converted a single family home into 15 bedrooms.

“We have shared with the university that that is unacceptable,” said Collum. “We are trying to preserve the feeling and character of our single family zones.”

Collum reported that the Village has been “proactively working with the University” and had completed a survey assessing the housing needs of undergraduates, graduate students and junior faculty. She said that that information was being shared with prospective developers such as those looking at projects at 4th and Valley, South Orange and Church Street, and the Lustbader properties on Vose Avenue.

“There’s ample opportunity to develop student housing where it would benefit the community and not infringe on single family zones,” said Collum.

However, Collum stressed that the Village did not want to encourage the university “to remove properties from tax rolls” or “run their own housing units.” She clarified that the Village instead wanted to “build relationships” between the university and prospective developers.

“On top of that students add to the vibrancy of our downtown.”

Collum said that the student lifestyle could lend itself to economic development downtown. Students without vehicles could walk or use shuttles in the Village or on Valley Street where their added foot traffic would benefit local businesses.

“You get the benefit of a population that is low cost, no school cost and patronizing our businesses,” said Collum.

In response to follow-up questions from Village Green asking about how much of any one private development could then be allocated as student, graduate student or faculty housing and what that approval process would look like, Collum sent the following reply:

As mentioned during my report, the village has made it clear to Seton Hall that we’re not interested in them acquiring property off campus and removing them from the tax rolls. Instead, we’d like private investment from developers that accommodate some of the student needs (both undergraduate and graduate) as well as junior faculty. This would be done purely off market analysis the same way you’d evaluate supply and demand for different demographics with specific housing choices (young couples with no kids, commuters, senior housing, affordable housing, etc.). This obviously requires us to all work together and identify opportunities to support all of our needs and goals. By identifying appropriate locations for this type of housing, which we believe belongs in our business districts, we can also address the issue of single family home conversion into student housing which can be very problematic.  

The village partnered with Seton Hall on a survey in early May to get a better grasp on what the needs and preferences are, and some of the highlights are as follows:

  • 855 undergraduate and graduate students took the survey.
  • If there was available student related housing in our downtown, 83% of respondents would be interested in this option, while 17% would not be interested.
  • 81% of respondents cite independence as the main reason why students may choose to live downtown. 73% report reasons associated with food, fun, and entertainment, while 60% indicate access to transit. 45% of respondents find the “urban lifestyle” attractive to students.

Unlike the past, Seton Hall does not have a housing shortfall. In fact, they have roughly 100 open beds right now and that number will likely increase with the School of Medicine moving off campus. So what we’re dealing with is “preferences” not a matter of lack of supply within the Seton Hall University zone. I believe the Village is being proactive in discussions, being guided by planning documents such as our Vision Plan which calls for greater connectivity between the town and university.  

Additionally, from both a planning and economic development standpoint, having students living in our business districts also means they are spending money in our stores and supporting our local economy which is very important for our small businesses and the vitality of our community. It also helps our ability to attract and retain new and existing businesses.

These are all simply discussions that are ongoing and are a testament to the relationship we’re building between the town and Seton Hall.  

Related stories:

OPINION: Seton Hall Housing — What Is the Plan?

South Orange Working With Seton Hall to Create New Housing

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