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High-end apartment complex caters to shortage of WCU student housing

Housing developer Scott Austin did a little simple math before deciding to pursue an $8 million dollar project to build two four-story apartment complexes in Cullowhee, right on the front doorstep of Western Carolina University.

He looked at the number of dormitory beds provided by the university for student housing — about 4,000. Then he researched the number of available, quality units in the area around the university and came up with another 1,000.

He added those two numbers together and compared it with the figure of 7,500 students attending classes on campus in Cullowhee.

“So, effectively, for 7,500 students, there are 5,000 quality beds,” Austin said. “There is a woeful lack of quality student housing in the area.”

Austin’s company, Austin Development Properties, and partnering company Rudolph Properties have already broken ground at the site where they plan to build nearly 80 new apartment units furnished with more than 170 new beds by next school year, near the epicenter of the university’s planned Millennial campus expansion.

More may follow if growth in the Cullowhee area takes off — the numbers already make a strong case.

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In 2000, the U.S. Census reported the area known as Cullowhee as having a population of just fewer than 3,600. By the 2010 census, that number had climbed more than 6,200 — a jump of about 40 percent.

And the university was no exception either: it enrolled about 3,000 additional students during that same time period, to reach just more than 9,000 in 2010. This year, a new enrollment record was set with a student body of 9,600 students.

However, only between 7,000 and 8,000 are actually studying in Cullowhee, with the rest participating in distance learning or attending the university’s Asheville campus, said Sam Miller, associate dean for academic and student affairs. Of those attending classes on the main campus, some students prefer to live in nearby Sylva or commute from home, he said.

Miller pointed out that Austin’s calculations of a 2,500-bed shortage don’t exactly paint the whole picture. The 2010 census reported a rental vacancy rate of about 7 percent in Cullowhee and a quick housing search on Craigslist reveals several apartments still available after the start of the semester.

Also, the university’s on-campus housing ends up with about 4 percent of its beds empty — after hitting 100 percent occupancy before the early fall enrollment drop-off, Miller said.

But what Miller acknowledged may be lacking is a range of choices for students.

“If you looked at just bed count, there might be sufficient supply to meet the demand of students enrolled but not the ideal apartment,” Miller said. “What’s left over may not meet the exact kind of housing arrangement or lifestyle they want.”

Currently, housing available in Cullowhee runs the gamut from the couple of trailer parks near campus to the clusters of apartments and scattered rental houses. But, Austin and his business partners, who specialize in locating potential development sites near state universities with a niche housing shortage, are banking that in Cullowhee high-end housing — such as the fully-furnished units equipped with a flat-screen televisions, granite countertops and pool access that he is planning on building — is in high demand.

Rent will be commiserate with the amenities — $1,100 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

It’s not Austin’s only project in the area either. He also purchased a partially finished hotel in foreclosure on the main commercial thoroughfare of N.C. 107 across from Walmart, which he plans to develop into a $5-million-dollar project, after picking up the property for $850,000.

Austin first bought the hotel to fill a need for short-term hospitality in the Sylva and the university area. But while negotiating that development project, he saw the market potential for high-end student housing in Cullowhee.

Michelle Masta, who brokered the real estate purchase for the property of the future apartment complex and the hotel, agreed.

“Here, there is definitely a demand,” Masta said. “I just can’t believe these students right now are living in trailer parks. It’s disgusting.”

Yet, despite her claims that the market has potential, the building boom in Cullowhee is not exactly a boom. Masta said after negotiating the $750,000 real estate deal between five Cullowhee landowners to acquire the land for the apartment complex and witnessing similar student housing proposals get denied by the strict zoning codes of Forest Hills, the nearest incorporated town to campus, she has a good idea as to why.

“There have been several companies trying to do exactly this,” Masta said. “But, there is limited land around there that is not owned by the college. It’s not an easy deal to put together.”

But Masta, who is also the owner of Skyros Investments and specializes in development and real estate projects in Jackson and Macon counties, sees the area as a hotspot for growth in the future.

“It’s one of the premier schools in North Carolina, and everyone wants to go there,” Masta said. “In terms of building and making themselves a really good university, it’s going to change. You’re not going to see all those trailer parks.”

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