Students face housing crunch in Fairbanks

Off-campus rental availability shrinks as costs increase

Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Many students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are thinking about more than the start of classes in another week. They are frantically trying to find an affordable place to live.

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Figures indicate that while it's more affordable to buy a home in Fairbanks than in almost any other part of the state, rental costs compare to those found in Anchorage.

This spring, the availability of those rentals had shrunk dramatically, with the chances an apartment was actively occupied rising to over 98 percent the lowest quarterly vacancy rate in four years from the previous springs 90 percent, according to statistics compiled by the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

The cost of renting a cabin or two-bedroom apartment rose by 13 percent and 9 percent, respectively, during the same yearlong stretch.

Now, with seasonal workers leaving Fairbanks and college students preparing for classes, property managers said it's difficult to get a read on how the rental market has changed since this spring's crunch.

"I'm nervous," said Steve Enochs, a broker at Senek Property Management. "We've seen some fluctuations that (are) somewhat abnormal."

With about a week left until classes begin, many University of Alaska Fairbanks students are on the hunt for a place to live.

Tony Lewkowski, 19, of Anchorage, is entering his second semester at the university. He is one of the hundreds of students planning to live off-campus. He has driven with friends to Fairbanks twice in as many weeks in hopes of finding an apartment.

By Sunday afternoon, he said his search had grown frustrating. He and three prospective roommates were about to sign a lease for a cabin that lacked running water.

"It was a massive waste of time," he said of his trips to Fairbanks. "We've been thinking, are we really going to pull this off? It was pretty stressful."

It's too early for university officials to say exactly how many students will live on-campus this year and how many will opt for cabins or other rentals. The school raised on-campus housing prices last year after seeing energy costs grow by 42 percent, said Kevin Huddy, the university's housing director. The number of students living on-campus dropped 11 percent.

Those who rented off-campus jumped into what was becoming a rapidly changing rental market.

"It got really busy after the guys (came) back from Iraq," said Phyllis Enoch, who manages the real estate rental company Northern Homes, formerly Omni Property Management. Thousands of soldiers stationed at Fort Wainwright Army post returned from a tour in Iraq last winter, while other troops were almost simultaneously arriving from other parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the Army had leased hundreds of Fairbanks-area rentals for its soldiers and their families. Leonard Hyde, whose Anchorage real estate company J.L. Properties owns and manages an estimated 1,200 apartments in Fairbanks, said around 40 to 50 percent of his apartments are currently leased to the military through year-to-year contracts.

"It's a major part of our tenant base," he said.

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