College Houses’ mission is to provide affordable co-op housing to Austin college students. But what does “affordable” actually mean? How do we set our rent rates each year? Who is benefiting from our housing?
This will be the first of a short series giving insight into these questions. Today, we’ll discuss the way College Houses defines and assesses affordability. (To catch the rest of the series, be sure to sign up for College Houses Community News!)
Affordability at a Glance
- College Houses sets rent based on the cost of operation, not the market rate for apartments.
- We assess affordability by comparing to the conditions within Austin, including the cost of the UT dorms and the median income of the area.
- All of the rooms at College Houses are considered affordable housing.
- Some co-op spaces are reserved for those who can provide documentation that their income is below a certain amount. These are called “Income Verified” or IV rooms.
- IV reserved rooms are not physically different from non-reserved rooms.
- The most common way our members document their income is by showing their need-based financial aid package.
How We Define Affordability
College Houses defines and measures affordability by comparing our rent rates to the UT-Austin dorms and to market rate apartments in West Campus. We also compare our rates to the median family income for a one-person household in the Austin area. These metrics provide an upper limit of where we want our rents to be, while our actual rents are determined by our operating costs.
Dorms offer a great point of comparison for shared-style co-op housing. Both housing options are specialized for student needs and include meal plans. The University of Texas at Austin releases pricing each year for all of the room types offered at their dorm buildings. We compare our single rooms to the “single with community bath” room type and compare our double rooms to the “shared space with community bath.” We strive to keep our rates at about 50% of the price of the UT dorms or less.
Market Rate Apartments
The market rate is the average or median monthly rent for comparable apartments in the Austin area. Unlike dorms, apartments are not an apples-to-apples comparison to shared-style co-ops. They tend to offer more private space and lack community-focused facilities such as common rooms and a shared commercial kitchen. Nevertheless, apartments are a very common housing choice for thousands of students, so it makes sense to see how co-ops stack up.
When comparing co-ops with market rate housing, we first deduct the part of member rent that covers food and utilities, because apartments rarely include these. Then, we compare our single room rates with the rates for efficiency apartments. For double rooms, we compare our rent with half of that number. The best comparison for our apartment-style houses, Nueces and Opsis, is half the cost of a two-bedroom apartment. We want our costs to fall below market rates in all of these cases.
We rely on third parties to provide market rate data. There are websites such as RentCafe.com that offer some market data. We also reference the Fair Market Rate (FMR) data published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. (OK OK, the FMR is technically the 40th percentile of rent rates, not the median, but it’s still useful!)
Median Family Income
Defining affordability based on income is very common in the affordable housing world. Generally, housing is considered affordable if the residents pay 30% or less of their income to live there.
There are a few factors that make student housing a bit special when we think about income. First, many students receive income from financial aid or from their family members. They also have different expenses compared with the typical adult around which the 30% number was based. (After all, we’d bet that most people don’t routinely spend entire paychecks on textbooks.)
Despite these factors, comparing our costs to the median family income (MFI) is essential for us to explain the benefit of co-ops to other organizations involved in affordable housing. This includes the City of Austin, which has supported College Houses in building the Super Co-op and in repairing 21st Street Co-op. We want our housing to be affordable to people earning 40% of the Austin-area MFI for a one-person household. In other words, these people should be able to live at College Houses while spending no more than 30% of their income on rent.
We are happy to say that we are meeting or exceeding most of our affordability goals. As of August 2022, our single rooms cost a little more than our goal of 50% of comparable dorms. We will keep an eye on this, but co-ops still provide enormous savings when compared to on-campus dorms.
We know that what is considered affordable by an individual depends on their own financial circumstances. Indeed, based on member surveys from 2020 and 2021, around 9% of our members felt that College Houses was not affordable for them. While we are succeeding in our mission, there is always room to do better (we hope to talk more about that in a future article.)
Who Lives in Our Affordable Housing?
Now you know how we define affordable housing, but how do we use that housing to benefit Austin students who need it? That will be our topic for the next article in the series.
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