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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Is affordable student housing a myth?

How do students afford housing as new luxury apartment complexes are being built around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus?

Students and residents of Madison are no strangers to the fast-paced changes that frequently occur around campus. New high-rise luxury apartments and construction zones sprout up at every corner and street turn. 

The Verve, Oliv and Atmosphere are three dominating apartment complexes slated to open in August 2024, just in time for a larger-than-ever student population. Student enrollment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has topped 50,000 — the highest number yet — as of October 2023, with the highest number of applicants for the incoming freshman and transfer students at a staggering 67,979

What does this mean for student housing? 

While researching new apartment buildings going up in Madison, the word “luxury” quickly dominates. The Oliv boasts a clubroom with TVs and gaming, a rooftop sundeck with a pool and a year-round hot tub. Oliv is also introducing Elevate, a bundle of amenities tailored specifically toward students moving into the apartments. This experience includes a personal move-in concierge team, professional movers and a complimentary trash-pick up. 

These complimentary amenities might just be the reason behind the $1,380 average monthly rent for student apartments in Madison, according to Rentable. While Oliv promises it will set aside 112 of the 1,001 apartments for affordable housing, that fraction will not sustain the number of students who don’t rely on financial aid to pay for tuition but still can’t afford to spend up to $1,875 on a studio apartment or $1,600 for a bed in a five-bedroom apartment

This theme continues at the Verve, an apartment building located on Johnson Street, where students have signed leases of $1,619 a month for a room in a five-bedroom apartment. The pattern emerges again at Atmosphere, a new complex being built on Regent Street, with amenities such as a podcast room, meditation room and the lowest one-bedroom rent per month being $1,974.  While these amenities provide an element of luxury for students, most are just searching for a clean, well-managed apartment that won’t break the bank on top of their tuition costs. An in-building gym isn’t a make or break for most students, but somewhere within walking distance of campus will be. 

Yet with every passing year in Madison, rents seem to jump regardless. The Four Seasons, an apartment complex managed by Madison Property Management on Park Street, recently announced its monthly rent would go up from $800 to $900. No new amenities or improvements have been made in this past year. Rental companies just know that students will pay it in comparison to the elevated rates at new complexes. 

These advanced amenities and higher-than-average rents are not a new aspect in student housing — apartments like the Hub and The James completed construction in 2015 and 2017, respectively. A one-bed, one-bath unit in The James can start at $1,029 per person with a shared room and $2,019 for a single room. 

These prices exceed average monthly rent prices in Madison, and it’s why students wait for hours in line outside leasing offices when they find an ideal location on campus and their own standard of affordable housing, grappling at straws to live affordably in their college city. 

However, there is hope and other options for students who cannot afford these high-rise apartments. Nonprofit tenant resource groups help students make well-educated and affordable choices when it comes to housing. These groups include the Tenant Resource Center (TRC) and the Madison Community Cooperative, both of which advocate for low-income individuals and solutions to the housing crisis, including positive relationships between tenants and landlords. Considering leasing applications in Madison often open in October, new students might struggle to acclimate to the fast-paced apartment scene. Resources like the TRC should be advertised as helpful advocates for affordable housing. 

Another option for affordable housing has been proposed by Core Spaces, the builders behind Oliv. Its idea for a four-building apartment complex with 465 units and more than 1,600 beds will offer rent that is 40% below market rate for 165 beds in the complex. This agreement states it will be offered for the next 40 years, providing relief for students as rent creeps up yearly. Three of the four complexes would exceed Madison’s height limit at 15 stories, but city officials reached an agreement with developers to build higher in exchange for lower tenant rates, a win for all students. While 165 beds might be a small fraction of affordable housing, it will hopefully encourage other complexes to factor in lower rates in the future. 

Students have reasons to be concerned and subconsciously think the higher the building, the higher the rent. But new opportunities are slowly creeping into life affordably and comfortably. They just may not include rooftop pool decks. 

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Kate is a staff writer and a sophomore studying journalism. Do you agree new apartments being built around campus that offer a certain amount of units with lower rent will encourage other complexes to do the same? Send all comments to

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