Amid soaring Portland rents and high student demand, University of Southern Maine officials are exploring whether to offer in-town dorm housing to students as early as this fall.

“Our students are telling us consistently that it is extremely difficult to find affordable housing in Portland,” USM President Glenn Cummings said Wednesday.

USM would not build or buy any buildings, but would lease existing rental housing, then offer it to students as dorm-style units, according to Nancy Griffin, vice president for enrollment management, who is leading the effort.

Cummings said the school could also enter into a private-public partnership that would allow a company to build on the Portland campus. USM, which has had multimillion-dollar deficits for years, can pursue a Portland dorm only if it is cost-neutral, said Griffin.

One large-scale possibility is USM leasing the 100-unit, 402-bed Bayside Village Student Apartments on Marginal Way, she said.

Other possibilities include leasing low-density buildings in Portland, South Portland or Westbrook in partnership with other colleges, such as Southern Maine Community College, Maine College of Art or the University of New England. Low-density buildings, she said, could be attractive options for small groups of students with common interests, such as veterans or graduate nursing students.

Everything remains on the table for now: “I will get as creative as I need to. I’m hoping right now to get a larger number of beds for students,” Griffin said.

USM has about 7,700 students and 1,100 beds in dorm housing on its Gorham campus, about 10 miles from Portland, which are largely occupied by undergraduate students.

Any Portland housing, Griffin said, would first be offered to graduate students, law school students and undergraduates who are adult learners or have a demonstrated need to be in the Portland area for internships or other school-related work. Any new housing options may also be open to junior faculty.

Griffin said USM does not want to offer in-town housing that would take students out of the Gorham dorms, which are currently at about 93 percent occupancy.

“I think we have families saying they really like Gorham for the first year and sophomore year, but students say they would very much like to be in Portland by senior year,” Griffin said.

USM Student Senate Chairman John Jackson said a student referendum last fall found overwhelming student support for dorms in Portland. “This is big for students. A lot of students want this,” Jackson said.

Griffin will present her recommendations to Cummings by April.

Students have a May 1 deadline to indicate their intent to enroll at USM for the fall.

Griffin said having dorms in Portland would be a powerful recruiting tool for USM, which has seen enrollment decline 17 percent in the past five years.

The rental housing market has skyrocketed in Portland in recent years.

An analysis conducted by the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald as part of its six-part series, “Welcome to Portland: No Vacancy,” found that the median renter household would need to spend 59 percent of its income to rent the average two-bedroom apartment on the market in Portland last fall.

Apartment listings in September and October revealed an average market rent of $1,560 for a two-bedroom unit, including heat and utilities.

At the same time, a rent payment considered affordable for the median renter household – 30 percent of the household’s monthly income – was about $800 a month.

The newspaper’s analysis also found that market rents have climbed 40 percent in the past five years, after adjusting for inflation. Griffin said she was trying to find housing that USM could offer students at about $700 a month. For an additional cost, students could also get a meal plan.

USM used to have a 280-bed dorm off campus, at 645 Congress St.

The university purchased it in 1989 and sold it in 2011 for $2.2 million. At the time, USM administrators said the move was to make the residence program more cost effective.

Some of the residents moved to the Gorham dorms or to the then-new 100-unit Bayside Village Student Apartments on Marginal Way. Griffin said she has had several meetings with officials from the Atlanta-based company that owns Bayside Village, with an eye to leasing the entire 402-bed facility for the fall.

That company, Peak Campus, specializes in student housing and manages 46,000 student housing beds in 68 college markets, with both privately-owned and university-sponsored facilities. Company officials did not return calls for comment.

Bayside now rents furnished four-bedroom units at $599 a bed per month, with utilities included.


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