Student housing just south of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in the College Court, Spring Street, Greenbush and Vilas neighborhoods has long been affectionately referred to as the “sophomore slums.”
To many students, the low-rise apartments and older homes in the area are a step below offerings near University Avenue, State Street and Langdon Street, where high-end apartments and spacious houses are far more common.
But the students who live there aren’t sure the name fits the neighborhood.
“It’s a funny name, but I wouldn’t refer to it as a slum,” said Kayleigh Westmore, a sophomore who lives in the Greenbush neighborhood. “It’s just more of a basic neighborhood [and] there’s a lot of upperclassmen who live around here, renting out whole houses.”
“I wouldn’t say that it’s derogatory, but I’d certainly say it’s an exaggeration,” said Noah Fellinger, a sophomore living on Fahrenbrook Court. “I’ve seen places elsewhere in areas outside the ‘sophomore slums’ that are much worse for much higher rent.”
Westmore and Fellinger’s views are shared by most other residents, many of whom cite location as one of the biggest appeals. The neighborhood has a high walkability score compared to the rest of Madison, and key locations such as Engineering Hall, Bascom Hill, the Nicholas Recreation Center and Union South are within a 20-minute walk.
For Allie Eichman, a sophomore and resident of College Park, walkability means she can get to classes and feel comfortable walking alone at any hour of the day.
“I really like it,” said Eichman. “It’s a nice distance to classes, especially considering I could be living somewhere way down University Avenue. I like that at night I feel pretty comfortable walking home by myself, especially down Park Street because it’s a pretty busy road.”
Another major housing consideration for students is affordability. According to a 2020 UW-Madison Geography Department study, affordability is “very” or “extremely” important to 60.4% of student renters. Most students define “affordable” as anywhere from $500-$749, but with the median off-campus price per bedroom at $938.23 per month, balancing price with quality and proximity to campus is challenging.
“I would say housing really isn’t affordable for a lot of students,” said Fellinger. “Unless you have parents that can help you out or have copious amounts of aid, housing near campus isn’t affordable for the average student.”
Apartments and houses meeting the “affordable” definition of under $750 per bedroom are far more common in the sophomore slums, with some rents as low as $450 for students who choose to share a room. Low rent doesn’t mean lower quality housing, either, a fact understood even by students living outside the area.
“In general, I have pretty positive feelings towards the neighborhood,” said Carter Chojnacki, a junior living near Langdon Street. “It’s a decent neighborhood where you can get a discount and be close to lots of people. I think it’s more affordable when you compare it to some [buildings in] the higher-end neighborhoods, like The James and Lucky.”
While new, higher-priced properties near University Avenue, Langdon Street and State Street offer hot tubs, fitness centers and outdoor lounges, students in the “sophomore slums” feel these amenities are unnecessary for college students and are only included to drive up prices. In fact, students say the high-rise boom furthers class and wealth divisions on a campus with a long history of elitism.
“The one thing I’ve noticed about Madison is that there’s some very distinct class differences, and perhaps the most noticeable distinction of class differences is where people live and the type of places they live in,” said Chojnacki.
“I would say it feels classist, yeah,” said Fellinger. “When you look at the sophomore slums and other areas on campus, it really is just a juxtaposition to nicer, luxury high rises only available to students with access to lots of wealth.”
Luxury developers and Madison politicians argue more units will drive down costs, but as housing prices continue to rise in Madison, students increasingly doubt this claim. In a January interview with WORT, District 8 Alder Juliana Bennet explained the housing dilemma students face.
"You have a choice between an overpriced, overly-bougie and just overly expensive place, or you have another option that's more affordable, but run-down,” said Bennett. “Students shouldn't have to make this choice.”
Yet students are forced to make this choice, and those who choose the sophomore slums still deal with quality and access issues. Many houses in the area, especially in the Greenbush and Vilas neighborhoods, come with odd quirks or chronic issues.
“There’s a lot of broken stuff in here,” said Westmore when asked about her house’s quality. “When we moved in, it was kind of filthy. But it’s affordable, so it does the job.”
Residents also struggle with access to healthy, fresh and affordable food. The closest grocery store for most students is Fresh, but for many, the high prices forge a love-hate relationship.
“Fresh is just so expensive compared to other places. It’s pretty ridiculous,” said Eichman.
Eichman and other students want to see a new grocer with more affordable prices and a location closer to their neighborhood. They argue that both the demand and space are present and that the only barrier is grocers not wanting to build a store.
“Oh yeah, I definitely think [another grocer is needed],” said Kip Sullivan, a sophomore living on Orchard Street. “Kind of in the middle of Regent Street, near where McDonald’s is, would be a pretty good location.”
“There could be another place within a better walking distance of the south side of campus where I am,” said Eichman. “It’d be nice to have someplace closer and cheaper.”
Despite food access and housing quality issues, area residents still see their neighborhoods as desirable places to live. Both Sullivan and Fellinger said they wanted to remain in the area if possible.
“Oh, 100%,” said Sullivan when asked if he would live in the area for another year. “It’s a very good overall spot. You’ve got Union South pretty close, and Camp Randall’s not far. It’s a nice, medium location and a relatively quiet neighborhood, which is great.”
“I think it meets my needs, and for the price that I’m paying, it’s pretty satisfactory,” said Fellinger. “I really don’t need much more.”
Tyler Katzenberger is the managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. As a former state news editor, he covered numerous protests and wrote state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerKatzen.