Southern Utah University asks students to live with relatives

Iron County newcomers seeking a ‘slower pace of life,’ vacationers who want short-term rentals and members of the Class of 2020 who delayed college for a year are driving a rental housing crunch.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) In 2015, amid a surge in demand for housing at Southern Utah University, building and housing officials Brad Niederhauser and Chris Ralphs built a bunk bed. The Cedar City school is facing another housing crunch for this fall.

Don’t count on getting into campus housing, Southern Utah University is warning students — and let school officials know if you come across any rental options they can suggest to others.

SUU Vice President for Student Affairs Jared Tippets sent an email to the student body last week encouraging students to look for relatives to live with.

And he cautioned students who are on waiting lists for on-campus housing to keep looking, because they can’t count on beds freeing up before the fall semester starts on Sept. 8. The four on-campus residence halls already have been booked to capacity.

Tippets also sought help finding available units in or near Cedar City that the university could post on its off-campus housing website. On Wednesday, it had only nine listings available for fall.

“We are working hard to open up new apartments and beds in collaboration with local hotels and landlords,” Tippets added. The university also is working on other options to accommodate students, such as offering online classes, according to the email.

The pandemic is one reason for the surge in demand for campus housing, Tippets later added in an email. Besides SUU’s continuing enrollment growth, some students from the high school Class of 2020 delayed attending college and are now joining the Class of 2021 as first-year students this fall.

And more people and families have moved to Cedar City in the past year “seeking a more rural, slower pace of life,” he added. “These folks have moved into apartments, town homes, and other properties that historically students lived in, thus shrinking the available housing options for students.”

SUU student Skyler Jones, who is heading into his final semester at SUU, said finding a place to live has “been a nightmare.” He’s concerned about how much more difficult finding housing has been this go-round, compared to years prior.

“At this point, it’s frustrating because the hardest thing about my last semester should just be finishing,” he said, “not just trying to find a place to live.”

What’s driving the housing crunch?

To meet new residents’ demand for housing, many landlords have sold homes that students had been renting, Tippets said. Others have turned homes and apartments into short-term vacation rentals — a more lucrative option than renting to students, he said.

“We believe that several hundreds of beds in the community have turned over to permanent resident rentals rather than student beds,” he said.

SUU has relied on community housing for students, keeping the number of beds available on campus fairly consistent for several years, Tippets said. But with the changes in the local housing market, he said, “we calculate that the available off campus student housing options are several hundreds of beds short.”

Jones said he called about off-campus vacancies posted on SUU’s website on several occasions but found each time that the units had already been filled. He said he “called every apartment complex you could think of in Cedar City” and was turned away again and again.

Some complexes told him that he couldn’t even reserve a spot on the waiting list because it was already full.

Housing choices also are constricting, he said. In years prior, Jones rented a one-student space at the College Way apartments near campus. But those private units are now being converted into shared rooms to offer more beds.

SUU also has found the opposite, Tippets said. “We’ve also spoken to many landlords who transitioned their housing options from shared rooms to private rooms in response to the demand from students in recent years to have their own room,” which decreased the number of available beds, he said.

Jones considered buying a small camping trailer and parking it on campsites near Cedar City. A friend has since offered him an extra bedroom in a home the friend is moving into in St. George.

That means — with SUU returning to in-person instruction this fall — Jones would have to commute an hour each way to attend his classes. He’s also added his name to the waiting lists at complexes in St. George and is still looking for available units in Cedar City, but said he’s worried that no landlords will be willing to offer him a six-month lease because they expect everyone to stay for the spring semester.

“I’m a little frustrated with SUU right now,” Jones said. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he said, “I was able to find housing a month before school started.... I don’t know what happened. We’re kind of left in the dark with why this is an issue now…. I’d just like a place to live, when it comes down to it.”

‘The increase of people happened so quickly’

Heidi Miller, executive director of Cedar City Housing Authority, agrees that the difficulty renters are experiencing could be due to an influx of people relocating from other states to Iron County.

Finding one-bedroom units for renters who qualify for government subsidized Section 8 housing has been a “struggle,” she said. Two-bedroom units are almost equally hard to come by, Miller said, and waitlists for three- and four-bedroom units are growing as well.

“It looks like we’re getting an influx of all sizes of families — students, young married couples and families that are relocating,” Miller said. “The problem is the increase of people happened so quickly, in such a short amount of time.”

The significant increase in price for rental units throughout Iron County is a “huge factor” in the shortage, she added. And some houses that were available to rent now are being put on the market to sell because of inflated real estate prices, which puts a dent in the available rental supply, Miller said.

There are a few private developments that are in the pipeline, Miller said, but those may not be finished in time to provide space for students arriving in the fall.

SUU is still working on finding more options for students, Tippets said. In one example, SUU will temporarily put students in hotels to await the end of the Utah Shakespeare Festival — then move them into beds being used by festival staff and employees. “This has created nearly a hundred beds for students,” he said.

SUU is “confident that developers and builders in the community will respond with new housing options in the coming year,” Tippets said. But for this year, “unfortunately, as a result of the housing shortage, I’m afraid not all students who would like to attend SUU on our Cedar City campus will be able to do so.”

“A number of students” on the waiting list have decided to switch to remote classes offered through SUU Online, he said. The school is working to help them “transition seamlessly to that learning modality for their first year of college,” he said.

SUU is not the only university in the state struggling with finding housing for students. The University of Utah sent a recent email to students informing them that — due to high housing demand — it does not expect to be able to offer housing to everyone on its waitlist by its August Move-in Week, “as we have been able to in previous years.”

The U. also encourages students to consider looking for other housing. “We are sharing this information in hopes of being transparent,” the school said, “and allow students and their families to make alternative plans as needed.”

Correction: 2:20 p.m. June 24: This story has been updated to correct that some comments attributed to another SUU officials were made by SUU Vice President for Student Affairs Jared Tippets.