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New NIU housing rule riles DeKalb-area landlords

The New Residence Hall East is seen Thursday on the Northern Illinois University campus in DeKalb. Beginning in 2015, freshmen and sophomores at the university will have to live in the dormitories for their first two years of college.
The New Residence Hall East is seen Thursday on the Northern Illinois University campus in DeKalb. Beginning in 2015, freshmen and sophomores at the university will have to live in the dormitories for their first two years of college.

DeKALB – Local landlords are still upset at Northern Illinois University’s decision to require sophomores to live in the dormitories beginning with students who will be incoming freshmen in 2015.

NIU spokesman Paul Palian said there is research showing that students who live in the residence halls for a second year are more successful.

“If we can position our students and give them a better chance at success, that’s only going to help,” Palian said.

But landlords, particularly within the DeKalb Area Rental Association, are concerned about how the loss of prospective tenants could affect their bottom lines and the city as a whole.

DARA President Will Heinisch estimated the rule would create 400 to 500 vacancies in the local housing market. Although most landlords will feel the effect, not everyone will react the same way, Heinisch said.

“The good landlords will be fine – the nice properties always rent first,” Heinisch said. “They can always lower their rents a little bit.”

However, he was worried about what he described as being mid-range properties, which could become vacant and distressed, eventually creating a hazard for the city.

Heinisch estimated the vacancy rate in DARA-affiliated properties to be between 8 and 10 percent. When the new housing rule takes effect, he said that could rise to 12 to 13 percent, although overall enrollment has an effect on their vacancies, too.

Palian said the second-year residency rule was not an attempt to generate revenue for the university. Rather, the measure is aimed at meeting the retention goal outlined in NIU’s Vision 2020 plan.

“Housing is not a profit center for the university,” Palian said.

The cost for a student to live in a dorm at NIU depends on the room and meal plan they choose. A student living in a triple suite in Douglas or Lincoln halls on a $60-a-week meal plan pays $8,634 a year. A student living in double suite-as-a-single plus bathroom in Stevenson Hall with a $110-a-week meal plan pays $15,134 a year.

Both NIU and Mason Properties, which Heinisch cited in his interview, have different guides detailing the costs of living there. Both of the cost comparisons are favorable to the agency that published them.

The NIU comparison guide makes generalizations about the cost of electricity and cable at an apartment.

Gas is factored in as well, although not every apartment in the city has a gas hookup. The Mason Properties guide solely looks at price-per-square foot, although it adds 400 square feet to NIU options for common areas.

Palian said university officials are concerned about keeping students in school through their sophomore year. In fall 2010, that retention rate was 71 percent. Compared with other schools in the Mid-American Conference that have second-year dorm-residency requirements, NIU has the lowest retention rate, Palian said.

“Since 2000, a substantially higher number of sophomores have withdrawn from NIU in good standing than freshmen on an annual basis,” Palian said. The second-year residency requirement is expected to change that, he added.

Heinisch said the rule would cause a continued downturn in enrollment, which has been declining at NIU since fall 2006.

“Times have changed,” Heinisch said. “Students want more convenience and more options, and that’s more easily provided by the outside environment. ... That’s why there is a large vacancy out there now in NIU properties.”

Mike Pittsley, owner of Pittsley Realty, said most of his 600 units are rented to NIU students. Although increasing enrollment would help both the university and the community, Pittsley acknowledged retention is an issue.

“The problem is the retention of students,” Pittsley said. “If this helps keep students there ... I think we’ll be fine.”

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