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Published August 27, 2013, 09:04 PM

Low vacancy rates, high prices place premium on off-campus housing in Grand Forks

Passing a tough final should be the biggest obstacle UND students have, but many say finding a place to live in Grand Forks is the real test.

By: Robb Jeffries, Grand Forks Herald

Passing a tough final should be the biggest obstacle UND students have, but many say finding a place to live in Grand Forks is the real test.

Students often flock to the Internet to search for rooms, apartments and houses to rent on websites such as Craigslist and the UNDerground, a UND student government-run site where students can advertise and search for housing or roommates.

But a low vacancy rate has left many students settling for whatever they can get, even if it is less than ideal.

The Greater Grand Forks Apartment Association reports Grand Forks and East Grand Forks have gone from having a 7 percent vacancy rate in July 2011 to 4 percent two years later — even while adding more than 500 units.

More apartments are being built that could help alleviate the strain on the rental market. Eleven multifamily homes are listed as approved on the Grand Forks Planning Department’s website, including the Campus Crest development of 12 apartment buildings with 224 units and J-Mac Apartments with 48 units. Both complexes will be marketed specifically to UND students and are located along the city’s 42nd Street corridor.

Despite the new units, many students say off-campus apartments can be hard to find or afford.

Hard for out-of-towners

Dean Verhey, 19, a transfer student from Arcata, Calif., has been searching for a room to rent for about a month with no luck. He said he wants to share a house or apartment with someone because he is new to the area, but is having trouble finding a place close to campus.

“I may be able to find a studio or one-bedroom apartment in my price range, but I’d honestly rather not because of price and not knowing the area,” he said.

Other students not from the area said looking for a place to rent in Grand Forks while out of town has added another hurdle to clear: Many renters will not rent to someone they have not yet met face-to-face.

Abdullah Sairafi, 22, said finding a place to live for the school year from his home in Saudi Arabia has been tough because many online ads request potential renters to call or text only.

“When someone lists an apartment, it’s usually rented out on a first-come, first-serve basis, so until I’m actually in Grand Forks, it doesn’t look like that’s going to work for me,” he said. “In general, finding apartments online doesn’t seem to be efficient.”

Sairafi, an accounting student, said he moved up his return to Grand Forks by a week so he can continue his search in person. Even then, he said he doesn’t expect to find a place near campus.

“At this point, I’d settle for somewhere one-to-two miles away from campus,” Sairafi said.

Demand for off-campus housing may be up, but UND spokesman Peter Johnson said demand for on-campus housing is being met for the most part. A small waitlist currently exists for some of the less expensive campus apartments, he said.

“Individuals on the waitlist can be accommodated in residence halls” while they wait, Johnson said. “Overall, we are happy with where our vacancy rate is. Students don’t seem to be clamoring for on-campus housing; it seems like more are choosing to live off-campus.”

Unaffordable rent

Even though she had lived in a house with roommates for two years with no problems, year three in her four-bedroom rental house blocks from campus seemed unlikely for a 21-year-old physical therapy student.

“Three days before my continuing lease was to be signed, my landlord emailed me and said rent was going from $1,240 per month to $1,500 per month,” said Jessy, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she feared retaliation from her landlord. “He gave off the vibe that I was supposed to feel grateful because he said he would be charging future tenants $1,600 per month.”

Jessy and her roommates had split rent five ways the year before, but were cutting back to having four roommates. Without including utilities, all of which are paid by the renters, the roommates faced a rent jump of $130 per month each.

“He said the new rent level was fair based on the prices other people are paying in an area,” she said.

Jessy asked a friend who lives in the same neighborhood how much he was paying for rent. Despite living in a “much nicer” six-bedroom house with an additional bathroom, her friend was paying less than Jessy’s landlord’s proposed rate.

“I’m sure he’s not a bad guy,” Jessy said of her landlord. “I think he’s just trying to capitalize on his investment.”

Jessy said leaving wasn’t an option.

“He kind of backed us into a corner,” she said. “How are you going to find a place in three days?”

After speaking with her landlord, they agreed on a rate of $1,380 per month.

Sairafi said his search has turned up an abundance of single-bedroom apartments priced around $500 to $650 per month, but he said those too are likely beyond a student’s budget.

“I doubt that’s really affordable for the average American college student,” he said.

Jessy said she still isn’t sure how she will pay for the increased rent at her house.

“I can’t work more with my grad school stuff,” she said. “I guess I will look into getting more student loans.”

Still, paying a higher price for rent to stay close to campus is worth it for Jessy.

“I stayed because it’s conveniently located. I look at how much school I have left, and do I really want to pack up and move again?”