Showing posts with label Baton Rouge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Baton Rouge. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Luxury Student Housing and the Slumification of American College Towns

 In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cotton production was a staple of America's Southern economy.  Even today, the United States is one of the world's largest exporters of cotton.

But cotton has some problems. Grown year after year, cotton depletes the soil.  Before commercial fertilizers became available, cotton growers simply grew cotton on a plot of land until the ground was exhausted and then moved on to places where the land was still fertile.

Something similar is happening in the luxury student-housing market. All over the country, college towns are seeing a boom in student-oriented apartment developments.  Developers buy relatively cheap land near college campuses, build so-called luxury apartments, rent them to college students and then sell the units to new investors--often pension funds and private-equity funds.

Is this a good thing? From an investor's standpoint, luxury student housing is profitable. According to one source, students pay a higher rate per square foot of space than other tenants, and students can take out student loans to pay the rent.

Even better, there is a never-ending supply of new students to keep the apartment buildings full.

But, just as cotton exhausts farmland, student housing gets run down over time, causing maintenance costs to go up. Moreover, college students are famously fickle renters, and they tend to search out newer apartments and offer more amenities than their old digs.

As newer and more luxurious apartment complexes come on the market, older apartment buildings become harder to fill. Rent prices go down, maintenance gets deferred, and then the luxury student apartment complexes of yesteryear become the slum districts of today.

We see this happening in the college town where I live. As the Baton Rouge Advocate noted in a recent news story, the Tigerland neighborhood south of Louisiana State University is "the storied college bar district and surrounding housing options once considered some of the most luxurious for LSU students. . . ."

But most of the Tigerland student apartments were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and they have seriously deteriorated. Several have been converted into so-called "Section 8 housing," housing for low-income households who receive public assistance.

This is no problem for the present generation of college students. They have their pick among hundreds of newer apartments that offer more amenities--fitness centers, swimming pools, recreation rooms, etc. 

Meanwhile, Tigerland has become notorious for crime, including murder. The Sandpiper Apartments on Tigerland Avenue are so infamous that Hillar Moore, the local district attorney, attempted to shut the place down as a "legal nuisance."

According to a 2021 newspaper article, Moore said the police had received 195 calls at the Sandpiper since 2016, an apartment complex with only 14 units!

The Sandpiper's owner asked the judge and prosecutors to be more sympathetic:

"If they shut me down, they should shut down the whole place," he said after the hearing. "The entire neighborhood needs to be condemned, to be honest. You would be appalled to know some of the crimes that are happening there." [As quoted in the Baton Rouge Advocate]

On the bright side, Tigerland is only a short walk to the LSU campus, and the rents are reasonable.  

Why should I care whether the neighborhoods around LSU are becoming slums? After all, I'm a retired professor, not a college student.

But I live in College Town, an old subdivision near the LSU campus. The Sandpiper, which the district attorney tried to shut down, is located only 1.3 miles from my home. 

Tigerland--only a short walk to the LSU campus


 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Two Homeless People Were Shot While Sleeping in Their Blankets Under a Baton Rouge Overpass: What Can We Do to Alleviate the Homelessness Crisis?

Last month, two homeless people were shot to death while sleeping in their blankets under a Baton Rouge overpass. Christiana Fowler, age 53, and 43-year-old Gregory Corcoran Jr. were found dead near a roadway not far from the Bishop Ott Homeless Shelter.

Violent death has become almost routine in most American cities. In 2019, Baton Rouge experienced 83 murders, and the toll in many US cities is much higher.

But for me at least, the deaths of Fowler and Corcoran were especially poignant. As Advocate news writer Jacqueline Derobertis reported, both victims had people in their lives who loved and cared about them. Ms. Fowler had a daughter and an ex-husband who had offered to get her hotel room on the night she died just to get her off the streets. Mr. Corcoran left four children under the age of 18.

The Advocate published photos of Fowler and Corcoran, which powerfully attested to the fact that neither one had always been homeless. Fowler appears radiant with a smiling face and a confident gaze. Corcoran's photo shows him wearing a coat and tie, serenely looking at the camera.

Homelessness is an urgent problem in America. Thousands of Americans live on the streets or in tent jungles.  According to some reports, almost half of America's homeless are in California, but who knows the truth of the matter? Almost every American city has a significant homeless population.

The experts say homelessness is linked to mental illness, joblessness, and drug abuse. Indeed, Fowler suffered from drug addiction, and Corcoran had been thrown out of work. But to better understand the nation's current homelessness crisis, we might learn something from studying the last great period of homelessness in America--the Great Depression.

That era was powerfully depicted in John Ford's great movie, The Grapes of Wrath. Based on John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, the movie tells the story of the Joads, a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers who were forced off their farm by a heartless landowner.

The Joads were fictional, but more than a million homeless people flocked to California during the 1930s, where they hoped to find jobs and a better life. Thanks to World War II, most of the Okies were able to regroup. Many found work in the defense and construction industries. Others settled in California's Central Valley and became truck farmers. The great Merle Haggard, who penned the song Okie from Muskogee, was the son of Okie parents.

The homelessness crisis of the Thirties differs from today's homelessness epidemic. Many of the homeless people of the 1930s survived as intact families. The Joad family, for example, was made up of four generations. And the Okies of the Thirties had job skills. Most had been smalltime farmers, who knew something about construction, agriculture, and mechanics.

It should not take another war to solve America’s homelessness crisis. Our communities have the resources to alleviate this human tragedy. Expanding mental health services will help, along with more treatment options for drug addiction. But all of us have a personal responsibility to nurture young people to develop job skills, to become self-reliant, and to be resilient. 

And we should recognize our fellow citizens who help unfortunate people get back on their feet. Ivy Alford, my father-in-law, has cooked meals for homeless men at the Bishop Ott Homeless Shelter for more than 25 years. Over the years, Ivy and his family have cooked more than 5,000 meals for the homeless.

Ms. Fowler and Mr. Corcoran had family members who reached out to them. Had there been more time, both might have lifted themselves out of homelessness. Tragically, they were murdered.  Let’s hope their death underscores the urgency of the homelessness crisis in Baton Rouge.

Christiana Fowler and Gregory Corcoran Jr.: Homeless
Photo credit: Baton Rouge Advocate