By Nick DeBoer

West Lafayette’s rent is too damn high. It’s the highest in the region. Higher than Bloomington. Even higher than Indianapolis. It’s the highest in Indiana, standing at an unbelievable average of $932 for a one-bedroom apartment. This isn’t an accident. It’s a direct result of policy choices we have made, limiting the density of our city. It is also the consequence of living in a college town. The first challenge, one of density, is one we can alleviate with better public policy. The latter, the boom-bust nature of our rental market, is one that only smart and industrious renters can alleviate.

Housing prices are a direct result of land use regulation limiting the height of new apartments, and it’s our absurd commitment to minimum parking requirements. The central reason we have such high rents is a vacancy rate that hovers right around one percent. That’s significantly below both the state and national averages of between six and seven percent. When insufficient stock exists, when too few apartments are available for us to rent, income becomes the deciding factor in who has access to that supply, permitting those with the means to outbid those of lower and more modest means. We simply have not built enough housing to keep prices stable, or more importantly, watch rents begin to recede.

The result is prices continue to climb in West Lafayette. For our city, the solution to high rents is often moving to apartments on the other side of the river. This falls on our graduate students, teachers, local business owners and the large cohort of servers, cooks, cleaners and bartenders that make up the backbone of our city; they all seek refuge where housing is affordable. It’s simply too expensive to live here, and it doesn’t need to be this way.

Investment is clearly available. And through the miracles of steel and elevators, we can build taller buildings. Investors have repeatedly pressed the city to allow greater density and fewer minimum parking regulations, and we have routinely denied them. And so with each new building that rises, it falls short of creating as many units as possible.

Until more housing is created near campus, we will continue to face exorbitant rents, and our friends and peers will continue to be pushed to our periphery.

A less-studied cause, but one I suspect to also be driving this problem, is the fact that our entire housing supply comes online at the exact same instant each year. Like clockwork, each year, at about this time – you’ve probably already received a notice – it’s time to renew your apartment. Fewer than two months into your lease, it’s already time to put pen to paper and commit to another year. And they are likely asking for more than you are now paying. It’s not like that everywhere. This is what occurs when every apartment goes on the market at once.

The entire stock of housing now, or will soon, sit on the rental market for the plucking. This is the rush. This is when those who are price inelastic, those who care the least about how much their apartment costs, will go looking. It is also when all too often many are pushed into re-signing without negotiation. Like all good negotiations, you need a hand to play, and because of the boom-bust climate of our market, we are left cardless at the poker table of the landlords.

The good news is the rates will go down. If you wait.

The bad news is you might be displaced in the meantime. And you have little negotiating power to stop this until we inch closer to next August.

I want to build new and taller buildings. That simply requires the city council and the Area Plan Commission to stop demanding height restrictions and minimum parking requirements on proposed properties. Especially around campus and south campus. And that’s something as your city counselor I will continue fighting to achieve and believe we can.

But for fighting against the winds of the boom-bust market? The only thing I can suggest is simply to wait. Be smart. The longer you wait, the more reasonable rates will become. But that lies with us as a community of renters. As for density, that’s on me.

– Nick DeBoer is City Councilman for District One and a resident of West Lafayette.

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