A look back: Addressing student housing

  1. The Facts

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Student housing in downtown Auburn has been a topic of conversation within the community for years. For more than a decade, City planning efforts have prioritized the regulation of the development of student housing, from more specifically defining it and steering it out of protected areas, to now working to create new design standards and updated zoning laws.

Happening now: New recommendations on regulating and limiting student-housing developments were recently approved by the Auburn City Council, and a moratorium on student-housing developments is ongoing until Dec. 23. Further regulations are also being created in the form of new design standards for downtown developments. Recommended standards have been vetted by the Downtown Development Review Committee in a series of work sessions. On Nov. 10, the DDRC will have a joint work session with the Planning Commission regarding the proposed standards. After the work session, the process for public input will begin through public hearings before votes by the Planning Commission and Auburn City Council.

A look back: Explore the time line below for a look back at where we started.

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Spring & Summer 2007 — 221 Armstrong

A multi-unit housing development, 221 Armstrong, is developed near neighborhoods zoned Neighborhood Conservation District, prompting residents to express concerns. In response, the Auburn Planning Department initiated a zoning ordinance amendment creating a University Services-2 zone to provide density reduction and a more appropriate transition between University Services and Neighborhood Conservation zones in that area. During the public hearing process, many affected property owners voiced objections to the proposed amendment, claiming it would decrease their property values and take away certain development rights. As such, the Planning Commission recommended denial of the proposal in September 2007. The proposal then went to the council as part of a larger zoning amendment package, and the council opted to remove the US-2 component.

April 2012 — Zoning amendment

The City Council takes a step to ensure that multi-unit developments are located within walking distance of Auburn University’s campus, following guidelines detailed in the City’s comprehensive plan, CompPlan 2030. Specifically, the council approved a zoning ordinance amendment requiring all multi-unit developments in the Comprehensive Development District (CDD) — which largely exists outside the City's core — be subject to conditional use approval rather than be permitted by right. This allowed the City more discretion in the approval of multi-unit developments in the CDD zone. After that decision, the only zoning districts in which multi-unit developments were allowed by right was within the University Service and Urban Core districts.

February 2015 — Moratorium established

The City Council passes a six-month moratorium on new multi-unit housing developments in the University Service District east of College Street, where a student-housing development named 160 Ross was built. Under zoning ordinance provisions in place since the 1980s, the development was permitted by right — meaning it did not need approval from the City Council, but was a type of allowed development in that zoning district — at its location on the corner of Glenn Avenue and Ross Street, but after surprise from community members regarding the development’s size, proximity to the road and compatibility to adjacent properties and neighborhoods, efforts to review the zoning ordinance in this area began as the moratorium halted any future projects.

The University Services District was originally designed to meet the commercial and residential housing needs of the Auburn University community and permitted many commercial uses by right and the highest residential density (34 units per acre) of any zone in the City, outside of the Urban Core.

August 2015 — Moratorium extended

A new moratorium is approved by the Auburn City Council at its Aug. 4, 2015 meeting, as the original six-month moratorium was set to expire Aug. 17, 2015. The new moratorium places a halt on multi-unit developments within the boundaries of the City through Dec. 15, 2015. The moratorium is extended to give the Auburn Planning Department time to develop code for zoning recommendations outlined in the proposed Downtown Master Plan.

September 2015 — Downtown Master Plan adopted N/A

The City Council adopts the Downtown Master Plan, which is a guiding document for the logical expansion of the Urban Core, building on concepts within the CompPlan 2030 and establishing a vision for enhancing and growing Auburn’s downtown. The plan also addresses building heights, setbacks, façades and how the city measures density. The zoning implementation component of the plan is adopted by the City Council in March 2016.

December 2015 — Moratorium extended

An ordinance declaring a moratorium on private dormitory housing developments within the boundaries of the City except for in the University Service zoning district located west of College Street is approved by the City Council through May 3, 2016. The US District west of College Street had been previously identified by the Planning Commission as the area most suitable for high-density private dormitory housing developments for Auburn University students. This is the third extension of a student-housing moratorium originally approved by the council in February 2015.

March 2016 — Downtown Master Plan codified

Regulations to codify the Downtown Master Plan are approved by the City Council at its March 22, 2016 meeting. In regards to student housing, three new zones are created to replace the old University Service zones. The new zones are Urban Neighborhoods East, West and South. Private dormitories are permitted by right in UN-E and UN-W and are conditional in UN-S, with building height and densities being established for each zone. Private dormitory housing is also prohibited within the city’s Urban Core District, and purpose-built student housing, or private dormitories, is defined.

January 2019 — Student-Housing Task Force

A Student-Housing Task Force meets for the first time after being established by Mayor Ron Anders. The group, which includes two council members, the mayor and a handful of community members, organized with a goal of reviewing current student-housing data and reviewing Auburn University’s future on-campus housing and enrollment plans.

April 2019 — Academic Detached Dwelling Units

Another housing designation is added to the Zoning Ordinance to allow the City to better regulate a new type of student housing that had begun to spread into Northwest Auburn neighborhoods. The academic detached dwelling unit (ADDU) designation provides regulations for freestanding structures intended to be used by no more than five residents of academic institutions. The typical unit configuration includes common space and private bedrooms, each with a dedicated bathroom. At the time of adoption, ADDUs are permitted in Urban Neighborhoods East, West and South and in RDD, and are conditional in Corridor Redevelopment Districts Urban and Suburban, Neighborhood Redevelopment District and the newly created Medium Density Redevelopment District, which is generally found in the area around Harper Avenue. ADDUs are prohibited in all other zoning districts.

October 2019 — Housing Inventory & AU enrollment limitations

A Student Housing Inventory is released that calculates the number of units and beds of certain multi-family housing types within Auburn. The inventory was requested by the mayor-established Student Housing Task Force and compiled by City staff. The report determined there to be a total of 36,508 student-housing bedrooms existing in the City through six housing types, excluding duplexes, town homes and single-family detached dwellings. The housing types counted included purpose-built student housing (private dormitory) developments, multi-unit developments, multi-unit developments under construction, on-campus housing, academic detached dwelling units — a type of small-scale private dormitory with up to five bedrooms — and mobile homes.

This inventory report, combined with a decision from the Auburn University Board of Trustees in November 2019 that limits undergrad enrollment to 25,000 per year and total enrollment to about 32,000 in the 2022-23 academic year, served as a catalyst for further action on the City level to better regulate student-housing development in its boundaries. The inventory contributed hard numbers to the perception that student-housing was increasing at a much faster rate than had been intended or expected.

February 2020 — Moratorium approved

The City Council approves a moratorium on construction of private dormitories and academic detached dwelling units on Feb. 18. The moratorium is set to continue through May 27, unless terminated or extended by the City Council. The issue was raised by Mayor Ron Anders and supported by the City Council, which agreed to allow the issue to go before the Planning Commission before being considered by the council. The Planning Commission approved the moratorium at its Jan. 9 meeting. The moratorium is intended to give City staff time to draft, propose and vet changes to the zoning ordinance and design standards that will allow the City to better manage student housing.

May 2020 — Moratorium extended

The City Council extends the Feb. 18-approved moratorium on private dormitories and academic detached dwelling units for 90 more days, changing the date of expiration from May 27 to Aug. 25. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Auburn area, in the middle of the original 90-day moratorium, recommendations for managing the surge of student housing in Auburn needed to be vetted by the public, Planning Commission and City Council, but hosting in-person, public meetings was not an option. With the extension, valuable time is added for the recommendations to go through the proper process before adoption.

August 2020 — Moratorium extended

On Aug. 18, the City Council votes to extend the moratorium on the construction of private dormitories and academic detached dwelling units due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the extension, the moratorium will expire Dec. 23, unless terminated or further extended by the council. The Planning Commission hosts work sessions on Aug. 10 and 13 to evaluate recommendations relative to the moratorium.

September 2020 — Zoning amendments in process N/A

On Sept. 10, the Planning Commission recommends approval of two amendments to the zoning ordinance to prevent large-scale student-housing developments in downtown Auburn. The first amendment would lower the maximum number of allowed beds per acre in the University Neighborhood-West zone from 255 to 170 beds per acre. The second amendment prohibits academic detached dwelling units from being developed in Medium Density Residential District and Neighborhood Redevelopment District, where they were previously conditional. The amendments will be considered by the City Council at its Oct. 20 meeting.


Further restrictions are also being created in the form of new design standards for downtown developments. Recommended standards have been vetted by the Downtown Development Review Committee in a series of work sessions. In November, the DDRC will have a joint work session with the Planning Commission regarding the proposed standards. After that, the next step would be for the recommendations to be considered by the Planning Commission. The last step will be a vote by the City Council at a date to be determined.

October & November 2020 — Zoning amendments approved

The Auburn City Council approves zoning amendments to better regulate student-housing. At the Oct. 20 regular meeting, the council prohibits academic detached dwelling units in the Neighborhood Redevelopment District just north of downtown Auburn. This is done in an effort to protect future, more affordable residential infill and redevelopment opportunities. They table a second zoning amendment to the Nov. 3 meeting in order to get more information about it from the planning staff. The amendment would decrease the maximum number of allowed beds per acre from 255 to 170 in the University Neighborhood-West zone to allow for more moderate and sustainable development and redevelopment in that area, where a number of large private dormitories have risen over the past couple of years. In late October, the council holds a work session to discuss the proposed bed density decrease and approves the amendment at its Nov. 3 meeting.