Let’s put a red light on Duke’s purchase of Blue Light

Like an amoeba engulfing a helpless paramecium, Duke has yet again set its gaze on another piece of Durham real estate: Blue Light Apartments.

As Duke struggles with its chronic housing shortage, Blue Light’s proximity to campus, high percentage of student tenants and modern renovations make it a logical choice for campus expansion. The expected return of the hundreds of third-years who are currently studying abroad only adds heightened urgency to the issue.

But that doesn't mean the university should merely buy the property and take the easy way out.

Duke’s previous forays into the Durham real estate market have shown that quick fixes to short-term housing capacity issues quickly turn into permanent features of Duke’s campus. The university’s purchases of Swift Apartments and Lancaster Commons unearthed the unintended consequences of acquiring off-campus housing. Instead of continually applying the duct tape of real estate acquisitions to the gushing pipe of the student housing shortage, Duke needs to address the root cause of the problem: the university’s residential model.

Ever since the university closed the Central Campus Apartments in 2019, students have faced a chronic on-campus housing shortage. Come every August, it seems as if there is always a hectic scramble to find enough beds for both Duke and DKU undergrads. Meant as temporary stopgap housing to shelter students displaced by construction in Crowell and Craven Quads, the university bought Swift Apartments in 2016. Initially, the addition of Swift seemed like a win-win scenario. Duke bought the complex for a reasonable $50 million, and students got to live in luxury apartments that were now "on-campus." However, it wasn’t long before Swift began to reveal its dark side.

Students began to realize that transitioning a private apartment complex into college dorms isn’t as painless as it may seem. Despite only being constructed in 2014, Swift residents noticed a litany of maintenance issues. Perhaps the most prominent were the saggy floors and unsafe balconies, which led Duke to cap the maximum number of people in an apartment at ten in 2021. While Duke administrators promised that the days of Swift were numbered, it is apparent that the facility is now an integral part of on-campus housing.

In a similar fashion, Duke has been using the Lancaster Commons apartments to house graduate students, who had virtually no on campus housing options after the demolition of Central Campus. In many ways, the story of Lancaster mirrors Swift’s trajectory. The university first began using the complex as a temporary quarantine location for Covid positive students during the pandemic. But the utility of having a private developer shoulder the construction costs for student housing makes the location a convenient solution to the lack of grad student housing. This ignores the fact that Lancaster is on the side of a highway far away from campus and other amenities, which makes car ownership a de facto requirement for residents.

Duke’s lust for Blue Light reinforces an eerie feeling of déjà vu when analyzing the university’s property acquisitions. Like Lancaster, students were temporarily housed in Blue Light to accommodate for social distancing during the pandemic. Like both Swift and Lancaster, Blue Light is a relatively new construction, popular with students living off campus, right next to a major freeway and in an area unfriendly to pedestrians. In other words, Blue Light today is in the same stage of the acquisition cycle as Swift was in 2015

While purchasing Blue Light may be a straightforward fix to Duke’s housing shortage, looking at the acquisition through this narrow lens fails to consider the wider impacts of this action. The Triangle is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States, rapidly outpacing new housing. This has precipitated an affordable housing crisis in Durham, as an influx of students, tech workers and medical professionals outprice longtime low-income residents from the market. If the university purchases Blue Light, current residents will be forced to look elsewhere for housing, adding more demand to a supply-constrained market.

Furthermore, acquiring Blue Light would reinforce an already worrying path dependency of the university purchasing off-campus to alleviate the housing shortfall. If Swift and Lancaster couldn’t solve the problem, is there anything special about Blue Light that would? Next time Duke is in a housing pickle, the university can always just buy another apartment complex near campus. There’s nothing stopping University Hill, Station Nine, Erwin Mill and The Lofts at Lakeview Apartments from being a part of campus soon.

While the developers of these complexes would cash in, apartment residents would be forced to search for a new place to live. After the purchase of Swift, residents were only given a short notice from Durham Realty Incorporated, the company through which Duke acquires real estate, before they would have to move out.

As Duke found out the hard way with Swift, luxury apartments not designed to cope with raucous parties can’t just be magically converted into college dorms. Blue Light has many upscale amenities, such as a rooftop pool and restaurant. Is Duke prepared to maintain these deluxe perks and if so, at what cost to residents?

To tackle the problem of the on-campus housing shortage, Duke needs to address its root cause: the undergraduate residential program. All Duke undergrads are required to live on campus for their first three years. In theory, this sounds like a great way to build community and foster diverse social connections. However, in practice, students will be strewn across random apartment complexes in Durham to accommodate rising enrollment — a poor recipe for building community.

Additionally, absorbing new housing complexes will undermine the already convoluted QuadEx residential system. Like Hollows and Swift, Blue Light will be another addition to the misfits quad, undergraduate housing that has no East-West quad connection. If a sizable portion of the undergraduate population does not live in the quad covered by QuadEx, then the sense of community and belonging will be undercut. The university needs to either fully commit to QuadEx by ensuring that most students live in residence halls covered by the system or acknowledge QuadEx’s shortcomings and move on.

The future of residential life at Duke hinges on the Blue Light decision. Duke can either stick to the playbook by expanding into Blue Light for financial gain or choose to further invest in the property it owns. Redeveloping Central Campus, expanding current quads and eliminating the undergraduate housing requirements are critical steps that will sustainably manage Duke’s housing. Students will benefit by living in a walkable community and forming unique relationships. Durham residents will benefit from lower housing costs and an alleviation of the fear of being kicked out of their apartment. Avoiding the temptation of Blue Light, while difficult in the short run, is the first step toward building a thriving campus community in future decades.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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