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New on campus

UC's housing boom is adding student beds -- and raising rents.

August 15, 2004|Allison B. Cohen | Special to The Times

Exactly where a bed larger than a twin would fit was the question at hand for incoming UCLA graduate student Ariel Robinson, 22, as she checked out her on-campus apartment for the first time.

Her father, Mark, along for support and with a tape measure in hand, figured his daughter's bedroom in a recently opened housing complex at UCLA to be 10 feet by 10 feet.

"It's luxury condo living -- miniaturized," said the University of Pennsylvania graduate, who will start law school this month.

Robinson is among the first to benefit from a flurry of new housing construction at UCLA.

Though much of UCLA's housing stock was built more than 40 years ago, seven new apartment buildings and three residence halls will be opening over the next few years, providing housing for 4,000 students -- the most bed spaces that UCLA will have ever built at one time.

Robinson's new two-bedroom, campus-owned townhouse apartment -- complete with two-toned checkerboard kitchen flooring, built-in appliances, industrial-looking carpeting and view of the Los Angeles National Cemetery -- runs for $1,750 a month, a cost she will split with a roommate. Even though the place was a bit small at about 800 square feet, Robinson said she didn't mind.

"At Penn, the apartments were so old. And we had cockroaches and mice," she explained while unloading a law book, floor lamp and bag filled with toilet paper. "I am happy to be in a place, even if it is small, that is clean and new."

The entire UC system, which will grow to 10 campuses in 2005 with the addition of a campus in Merced, is undergoing the most aggressive acquisition and housing construction effort in the system's history to help alleviate what officials call an extreme shortage of beds.

The number of students enrolled in the University of California system grew by 15% -- about 24,000 students -- from 1998 to 2001. Some 40,800 more are expected by 2010. If UC had its way, they'd all have housing. Throughout the system, 34,000 new beds -- 5,000 of which already have been completed -- will be constructed at an estimated cost to UC of $2 billion.

The decade-long construction campaign is scheduled to be finished by the academic year 2011-12. On Southern California campuses, the goal is to add 4,300 beds at UC Irvine, 1,900 at UC Santa Barbara, 5,900 at UC San Diego and 4,500 at UC Riverside.

To cover construction costs, housing rates on UC campuses are rising and, in some cases, outpacing off-campus rental increases.

Anticipating the cost for the UCLA construction at about $311 million, the university has raised rents for its on-campus apartments and dorms 39% in five years, according to Michael Foraker, director of housing.

Only about 9,500 of UCLA's 38,000 students were able to live on campus last year, an option that university officials say greatly enhances a student's overall academic experience. The rest lived off campus or commuted from home.

In the last three years, UCLA has purchased five properties -- at a cost of about $18 million -- to help ease housing shortages. Prices started rising at UCLA most notably during that same time frame. Foraker anticipates another year of increases before rates stabilize.

"It's painful," he said, "but there's no way around it."

Like many universities, UCLA distributes the costs for such capital improvements evenly throughout its housing programs -- a practice known as "rate leveling." Every student living in campus-owned facilities helps pay the price.

Among them is Shawn Do, 18, an incoming UCLA sophomore. His parents noticed immediately the rise in the cost for his housing compared with that of his sister, Anh Dao Do, who graduated from UCLA in 2002.

"They were asking me why prices are so high now," said Do, an applied mathematics major. "I have a lot of friends that don't want to live in the dorms because they think it is too expensive. They've looked at privately owned apartments, and they think they are just a lot cheaper."

How much cheaper is hard to quantify, as there are as many configurations of rentals in and around Westwood as there are students who need them. Prices vary with building age, size, condition, location and amenities.

But all things being equal, UCLA housing officials, with the help of an outside appraiser, report their campus apartments are below market rates by as much as 6% to 30%.

Yet, when looking at a wider swath of rentals, the university's rates are well above the average. An annual UCLA survey of rental rates from Westwood Village, Mar Vista and Palms found that the average rental is $1,827 a month, while UCLA's current monthly on-campus apartment rate is $2,346. Rents in Westwood Village alone run from $1,800 to $2,400 a month for a two-bedroom, according to Foraker.

Although rental prices have gone up in the area over the last five years, none have risen as much as those of UCLA's own apartments.

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