Following last year's report by the Student Housing Task Force, the University of Kentucky is launching a program to provide a variety of services to its roughly 21,000 students who live off campus.
UK classes start Wednesday, but the new Office of Off Campus Student Services has been in operation for more than a month.
It isn't widely known, but UK officials hope it will become an indispensable service for students who may need help finding housing, learning their way around town, or just keeping up with local goings on. Among other things, students can go to the office's Web site, click on the housing locator and peruse lists of private rental housing around Lexington that might meet their needs and budgets.
Tony Blanton, the office director, notes that apartment complexes listed on the site have been inspected by the city, and that individuals offering residences for rent must demonstrate they've been inspected.
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The new office is just one of the ideas that came out of a Student Housing Task Force report last year that suggested various ways to combat trash, parking problems, poor building maintenance, and other issues in areas near UK where many off-campus students live. Other steps have included more aggressive housing inspections, moves intended to reduce population densities, and rules to halt the proliferation of so-called "vinyl boxes" — additions grafted onto houses to accommodate more students.
Leaders who have worked on the off-campus housing problem say it's probably too early yet for those steps to bear a lot of fruit. But they see a strong beginning.
"This will be the first semester that students have been back since a lot of the housing changes went through, so it's probably a little early to tell what kind of difference they will make. But I think that just having the off-campus office is a really big first step," said Lexington police officer Keith Gaines, who pushed for creation of an off-campus housing agency.
Lexington's Mike Meuser, who chaired the Student Housing Task Force, says he thinks many off-campus students are rejecting housing in older areas near campus this year and flocking instead to new apartment complexes that have gone up along South Broadway.
"I think the housing expectations of students have changed," Meuser said. "If a student has a choice between an old, ill-maintained house with a gravel parking lot, and a new place where they have their own fitness center, washer and dryer, and bedroom and bathroom ... they'll find that more and more attractive."
Meuser sees indications of that happening in the many "for rent" signs still up in neighborhoods close to campus, even though students arrived in town days ago.
"Even now, if you drive through Aylesford, you'll still see numerous properties for rent," Meuser said Tuesday.
Logan Craven, a UK freshman from Northern Kentucky, said he considered renting in the Oldham Avenue area but ultimately chose The Lex, a new apartment complex on South Broadway. Older neighborhoods couldn't match its amenities, he said.
"This place has everything; it's like being in a resort," Craven said Tuesday.
Hillary Mayhall, a senior from Louisville, previously has lived in older neighborhoods near campus. But this year she chose The Lex after an older place she considered near campus was condemned.
"I love it here; it feels a lot safer," Mayhall said.
If such trends continue, Meuser thinks they could bring big changes in housing near campus. For example, landlords in older neighborhoods might have to improve their properties to compete, he contends.
UK officials estimate about 75 percent off their students live off campus. With total enrollment this fall expected to be about 28,000 that means roughly 21,000 students are living away from the campus.
Reaching out to them is important, says Blanton, director of the new Office of Off Campus Student Services.
"We want to be a one-stop shop for students who live in the community, and link them with community and campus resources that would be beneficial to them," Blanton said.
The office Web site lists many of the large commercial apartment complexes that cater to students. It's still trying to attract smaller operators, he said. He noted that landlords must pay a fee to be listed.
"We're trying to get the word out to them, because many probably still don't know we exist," he said.
Students can reach the new office by calling (859) 257-3754 or by going to www.uky.edu/StudentAffairs/OCSS.