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New Boston-area student housing development varies amid crunch

Some schools build new, others want to convert existing properties, and then there’s that business about indy dorms unaffiliated with any college at all

One reason why Boston-area rents and prices are so high compared with much of the rest of the United States is that the region hosts an unusually hefty student population.

This would not be much of a challenge if the student population lived largely in campus buildings. But it does not. It spills into the general housing market, further heightening demand for an already tight real estate supply.

Recently, three different approaches have emerged to easing this situation. One is more concrete than the other two.

The large metal sign for a new dormitory. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Building new dorms. This is the most obvious and the most manifested example. Schools such as Northeastern, Emerson, Boston College, and UMass-Boston have in recent years built or proposed building new dormitories for their students.

But such projects can run into the same cost and financing challenges other developments do in the Boston area—and therefore can take years to build. And then they can have problems post-opening as was the case with the UMass-Boston dorm in Dorchester’s Columbia Point, where students had to deal with broken elevators and busted plumbing early on.

Rendering of a multi-story, glassy dormitory in downtown Boston. Rendering courtesy of Scape

Building new independent, unaffiliated dorms. This possibility is barely a year old and is due entirely to the work of one firm: London-based Scape, which wants to use the Boston area as its beachhead for a rapid rollout of U.S. dormitories not affiliated with a university or college, but geared toward undergrads and grad students nonetheless. (Scape’s plan for a dorm in Fenway is rendered above; the company already operates such properties in the U.K., Ireland, and Australia.)

Like with new dorms affiliated with schools, these indy dorms face similar financing and cost challenges as well as skittishness from some would-be neighbors about having to live near hundreds of collegians. But these dorms also have their fans, especially in this era of millennial-friendly micro-living.

The exterior of Boston’s Ames Hotel. Shutterstock

Buy and convert. Why spend to build? Or to partner on building? Here’s the third way Boston-area universities and colleges have been and might advance plans for additional student housing. The best example of late is Suffolk University’s plan to purchase the 114-room Ames Hotel in downtown Boston and convert it into a dorm.

This approach, though, comes with a particular pratfall: It takes properties off the municipal tax rolls—universities and colleges are nonprofits—and that might be something local officials are not too keen on allowing. Plus, there is the possibility of neighborhood opposition to a dormitory replacing another function such as a hotel or an office building.