UH Having Trouble Filling Its Fancy New Dorm

Calhoun Lofts, UH's swanky new facility intended for graduate and professional students, has almost everything: a 24-hour fitness center, private terraces and programming that includes yoga and cooking classes. As of late as last week, though, one thing was missing from the expensive venture: students to live in the building.

A friend of Hair Balls told us about a meeting the Division of Student Affairs called Friday to address the issue. The DSA, which oversees housing, announced that the 744-room facility was only at 25 percent capacity; it needs to be around 95 percent full for the university to break even. (The debt service on the facility, which Vice President of Student Affairs Elwyn C. Lee tells us is the largest capital project in UH System history, is $7.2 million a year for 30 years.)

We didn't go to business school, but we imagine the textbooks refer to this kind of situation as an "Oh shit!" gap. It certainly doesn't jibe with what UH President Renu Khator told us in May 2008, when she described an unnamed 1,000-room facility and a waiting list for on-campus housing.

The DSA responded a few days ago with a decision to allow juniors in seniors to live in the lofts, which are set to open in August.

At last week's meeting, it reached out to several dozen UH employees, asking them to work a call center and pimp the lofts to potential tenants. If a student lists one of these volunteers as a referral on the application, that volunteer gets $50 and entry into a raffle for a 42-inch TV. Fifty bucks - that's roughly five percent of the monthly rent for a one-bedroom! (Note to non-trust-funders: the one-bedrooms are shareable.)

"[Lee] kind of threw in his two cents, he basically said, kind of implied, that if you don't fill this place up, then we won't make the debt service payment, then the university will have to dip into its endowment, and there could be a freeze on discretionary spending and raises and that kind of thing," our source tells us. "But all that talk might have been just to get us on board."

Apparently, the move worked - Javier Hidalgo, associate director of housing, told us that as of yesterday 60 percent of the rooms had been applied for. Which, provided it's true, is good news for the university, since getting more students living on campus is a big part of the whole Tier 1 push.

Lee, who we got to meet with in person so he could match our business card to our name in the Press in order to verify our identity, tells us he was a bit nervous about the slow progress filling up the facility.

"I wouldn't have changed the eligibility if I was comfortable. If the question is whether I was comfortable with the progress, then no - clearly that's the case," he says. "I was very uncomfortable."

He says including juniors and seniors is the best way to get the lofts to take off, at which point they'll cut off the young'uns and go back to an all-postgraduate format after a year or so. (Reducing prices is a last resort.)

As for all the doomsaying about endowment-dipping and freezing raises: Lee tells us that if the lofts lose money, the difference would likely be taken from other, profitable campus housing facilities.

"I wasn't trying to be alarmist, but I do want to motivate people," he says. "This is important."

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