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Moving Closer to Campus

June 5, 2007

The trouble for some colleges in trying to recruit and retain faculty: Nearby housing is just too expensive.

That's typically not a problem at Jackson State University, the only public university in Mississippi's capital city, where the median price of a home is under $150,000, well below the national average.

The historically black college has a different problem when faculty want to live close to campus -- the state of the surrounding neighborhoods. They are blighted. Buildings have been abandoned. The housing stock is poor.

"We're still on the backside of urban flight," said Ronald Mason Jr., president of Jackson State. "Everyone who can has left and moved north of town. Any problem you can associate with a distressed neighborhood is evident here."

Contrast that with a recent building boom on the Jackson State campus, which has spent millions on a student center and engineering building, and the end result is an island of modern construction amid a decaying section of the city.

So the university, through a nonprofit development corporation it initiated, has turned its rebuilding efforts to the parts of town that border the campus. In what could be as much as a $100 million undertaking, Jackson State is seeking out federal funding and raising private money -- but not asking for state help or relying heavily on existing institutional resources -- to build several mixed-use developments consisting of both commercial, retail and residential space.

How much construction takes place in the short term largely depends on fund raising, which is still in the early stages. Within 10 years, Mason said he hopes the development projects will create two new neighborhoods -- one built nearly from scratch, and the other radically modernized. The efforts dovetail (though differ in scope) with a recent spate of campus developments in less urban college towns.

Along with roughly 50,000 square feet set aside for businesses, the housing portion of the Jackson State project is designed to eventually accommodate hundreds of public-sector employees who might otherwise be unlikely to own homes. Census data show that while the homeowner rate in Mississippi ranks above the United States as a whole, Jackson residents are well below the national mark.

Newly constructed housing would range from multi-family homes to single-family units to small apartments. With the help of federal subsidies aimed at building projects in economically depressed zones, someone who makes $40,000 a year would be able to buy a home in the market that would cost $225,000, Mason told the university's magazine, The Jacksonian. The hope is for houses to be sold for well under market value.

The development group is trying to attract lower-income employees as well as junior faculty and some administrators. University employees would get first shot at the housing, before other city and state workers. Harvey Johnson Jr., the former mayor of Jackson who is leading one of the rebuilding initiatives, said meetings with university employees show there is considerable interest in the home buying program.

"A lot of folks at the university are excited about the prospect of living close to campus," said Johnson, also a visiting professor at the university. "One of the ideas is to provide a living community where faculty and staff can reside. And it will surely help recruitment."

Coppin State University, a historically black college that's set in a similarly low-income part of another inner-city (Baltimore), is also pressing for a better housing stock. The Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the university, held a housing fair last weekend attended by residents of Baltimore's West Side and university employees looking to enter the market.

"We want to be able to attract faculty and staff to homes near campus," said Michelle McEachern, director of the development group. "That adds to the stability of the university and the neighborhood, and gives [faculty] a stable commute."

The areas surrounding Jackson State's campus, located about a mile from the city's central business district, are home to buildings that played prominently in the civil rights movement. It is an obvious spot for revitalization, said Mason, who prior to becoming president was founder and director of a center that managed public housing projects through Tulane and Xavier Universities.

The redevelopment project in a section of the city called Washington Addition, once home to many faculty members and administrators, would create a new entrance to the campus. (Some streets are named after prominent professors and graduates, the Jacksonian article points out.)

On the other edge of campus, Johnson is pushing for the development of a 50-acre area that now includes a mix of vacant lots and historical buildings. The so-called Lynch Street Corridor/Parkway Initiative also includes plans for student housing, rental town homes, a community center and a university village intended for students.

Several hourly employees at Jackson State have already been set up with housing through what was a federally backed home ownership program aimed at families whose income is below $42,500.

Mason said he hopes these efforts will make the areas around campus safer and more desirable.

"It makes sense from the university's standpoint to improve the environment around us," he said. "For a long time there has been a separation between the community and campus, and this has the chance to end that."

 

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