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Affording Oxford: Low income citizens disadvantaged by housing system

When an anonymous woman moved back to Oxford three years ago to care for her mother, she was already familiar with the area. Her father was a professor at Miami University, and she’d attended the school herself.

Still, she was unprepared to be on the other side of Oxford’s housing market.

“The person who rented me my apartment told me that it was quiet, and they didn’t have undergrads living [in the building],” she said. “That was wrong. They rented to some undergrads, so I get to listen to beer pong and walk by people vomiting in the alley.”

According to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, she is considered “housing cost burdened,” meaning over 30% of her income goes toward housing each month. 

But she’s not alone. 

A recent housing needs assessment conducted by Bowen National Research found the majority of renters in Oxford fall into the same category, with 54% of non-student residents considered housing cost burdened.

In Chicago, the fifteenth most expensive of America’s 75 largest cities, the woman lived in a two-bedroom apartment with plenty of space. 

Here, she rents a small one-bedroom apartment at a higher price.

She tried to find a different apartment farther from students, but competing in Oxford’s housing market takes more energy than she can afford to put in.

“I kind of do [feel stuck],” she said. “I’m exhausted. I’m running around from job to job to job to job. I don’t have time to be looking for a new apartment.”

In Oxford, her experience is the standard. 

In 2019, Community Development Professionals (CDP), a Hamilton-based business that specializes in community organization, made a report on the state of housing affordability in Oxford. It found that for every hundred Oxford households with an income at or below 80% of the area median income, a benchmark used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine who needs affordable housing, there are only 34 affordable units available to rent.

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Sam Perry, Oxford’s community development director, said the high cost of living comes because Miami dominates the local economy. The university pays the bills for over 3,000 full-time staff, and the CDP report found that 17,000 of Oxford’s 23,000 residents are students.

“The town was created to support the university – to have a place for people to live that both worked for and were associated with the university,” Perry said. “It’s not like a river town or a railroad town where there was commerce happening, so I think the issues with housing have to do with that history.”

Miami has long had a reputation for attracting affluent students. The median income for students’ families in 2013 was $119,000, nearly double the median household income of $63,000 for Butler County residents.

The Bowen study distinguished between student and residential housing. Residential properties average a cost of $0.72 per square foot per month, while student properties cost $2.41 per square foot per month.

Perry said it can be difficult to dissuade property owners from marketing toward students. There’s no legal issue with non-students renting student-marketed properties and vice versa, but the cost can be prohibitive.

“[Landlords] don’t have to provide any information to us about who they’re marketing for,” Perry said. “It’s a question that comes up, but it’s not a question that we have the legal right to have an influence over.”

Part of the disparity between student and non-student pricing comes from students’ relative inexperience in the housing market. Perry said students often don’t know they can bargain with landlords to cut costs before signing the lease.

“Student consumers are just so young, and they’re excited about getting an off-campus apartment,” Perry said. “They assume that the lease that’s presented to them is the only one that they can sign, that they have no negotiating power, that there’s some kind of rush … when [in reality] there’s plenty of units available. They’re the consumer. They can drive the boat if they want to.”

Students are only half the equation for housing in Oxford, though.

Of Miami’s 2,000 full-time, non-professorial staff, the Bowen study found that 45% make less than $40,000 a year. To avoid being considered housing cost burdened, their rent would have to be below $1,000 a month, including utilities.

The 2019 CDP report found the average rent for a unit in Oxford is $1,586 a month, more than 100% higher than the average in Middletown or Hamilton. It may be more convenient for university employees to live in Oxford, but it’s much less cost effective.

Overall, more than 9,000 people work in Oxford, but only 2,000 of those employees can call the city home.

Even if families qualify for a low-income housing tax credit program, which lowers rent by 10 to 15% for families with income between $43,000 and $69,000, there is nowhere in Oxford to go. 

The waitlist for government subsidized housing in Oxford is three years long, and the city has only 17 vacant units that are considered affordable.

Sherry Lind, chair of the Oxford Housing Advisory Committee (HAC), said Oxford’s college town dynamic means there’s an extreme shortage of housing for the general population.

“If you were a landlord, would you rather get a student in your place that would pay more and not even be there for the month of January and probably not even the summer?” Lind asked. “Or would you rather rent to somebody who might have a lower income and wouldn’t be giving you the amount of money you would get for the alternative student rental?”

The abundance of student housing in Oxford has made it nearly impossible for residents to live away from students even if their properties are affordable.

Dale Ehrlich used to be a professor at Miami. He rented a small house in the Mile Square for $750 a month, an incredible price for an Oxford rental, surrounded on all sides by college students.

“I stumbled into this sort of ramshackle bungalow on West Pine for a pretty reasonable rate,” Ehrlich said. “I couldn’t believe my luck.”

Oxford wasn’t Ehrlich’s first college town experience. He’d lived in Athens while earning one of his degrees at Ohio University. But after three years in Oxford, he’d had enough.

“I had people pissing against the side of my house and talking in loud voices with me sleeping just feet away,” Ehrlich said. “I had people who walked into my house at 3 a.m. so drunk that I could not convince them that no, this is not where the party is happening.”

Ehrlich’s landlord never raised his rates. He said they knew they had a good tenant in him. Still, the overwhelming presence of college students forced him to move out of the city and closer to Hueston Woods where it was comparatively quiet.

The incentive for developers to turn properties into student housing has adversely affected Oxford elderly population, as well. 

Lind said elderly residents tend to prefer one-story houses that are easier to navigate, but many such properties have been bought up and converted to student housing over the past decade.

“We are lucky here that we have so many one-floor houses [in Oxford], which are ideal for older residents,” Lind said. “Just outside the Mile Square are where most of them are, and those are being bought up and turned into student residences. It’s very frustrating to me because where are the older adults supposed to go if they can no longer climb stairs?”

Developers may soon start to suffer from their own strategy of cornering the student market, though.

Sophomores were permitted to live off-campus for the current academic year to lower population density on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the occupancy rate for off-campus student housing currently sits at 95%, the number is expected to fall next year when sophomores are once again required to live in university housing.

Before the pandemic, Lind said many student properties sat empty. In some cases, it was more cost effective for landlords to write off empty properties as expenses and take a tax break than to rent to low-income community members.

“Landlords are still in the mindset, by and large, of wanting students to rent,” Lind said. “It wasn’t like they were almost on the verge of taking in non-students. They were just sitting on the properties hoping that Miami’s increase in population or something [else] would get some more people back in their homes.”

Perry said the occupancy rate can be especially deceiving because it doesn’t account for landlords renting properties to less residents than they advertise for.

“What we typically see is not vacant but under-occupied [units] where an apartment has a permit for four [residents], but there are actually only two living there,” Perry said. “It’s really difficult for us to keep an idea of how occupied the housing units are because there’s no rule that the landlord [must] report that information to us.”

City Councilor Jason Bracken is also a member of Oxford’s HAC. He said the committee is looking into multiple potential solutions to make Oxford more affordable over the next few years.

“The best way to address this problem is as directly as possible,” Bracken said. “If we can directly incentivize developers to put in low cost housing, if we can sell properties that the city owns to developers that are more likely to put in low cost housing, that’s the best thing we can do. But this is probably going to take a broad approach to solving this problem.”

One approach Bracken mentioned was incentivizing low-income housing for future developers by making the zoning process easier if they commit to providing a certain percentage of affordable housing.

Most developers apply for a range of allowances from the city during the planning process. If they operate entirely within the city’s current building codes, though, the city has no power to bargain with them, and they can’t force low income housing into the contract.

Bracken also said the HAC has talked about raising the building limit in Oxford to fit more units in the same amount of land.

“If we’re able to increase density through raising the limit on the height of our buildings, that’s one way that you can potentially bring in lower cost housing or fit in more individuals,” Bracken said. “Basically, it releases some of the pressure from the supply and demand side.”

The city hasn’t yet introduced legislation to raise the building height limit, but Perry said he envisions a change of one or two stories. 

While Oxford works to improve housing, Lind said the city isn’t alone.

“The housing situation in this country is so dire right now,” Lind said. “It used to be when you were looking for a house, you were competing against people who were also looking for a house for their families. Now it’s a rush to see who can beat the absentee landlords.”