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UW Tacoma's Escalating Enrollment Drives Housing Demand

That gritty city to the south of Seattle is becoming hip thanks in part to the University of Washington’s Tacoma branch. The school started out in the early 1990s as a university for commuting juniors and seniors looking to complete their four-year degrees. It is now a full-service university, complete with the need for student housing. 


The University of Washington Tacoma's Court 17 student housing building

The campus' student population currently sits at about 5,400 students, but is climbing at 4% to 6% a year. By 2023, campus officials expect its size to hit about 7,000. Its downtown location makes it ideal for student commuters, but a growing number of students want to experience campus life, said University of Washington Tacoma Director of Campus Planning and Retail Services Patrick D. Clark, who will be one of the speakers at Bisnow's Pacific Northwest Student Housing and Higher Education Summit Oct. 25 in Seattle.

The university currently offers Court 17 student housing, which offers about 300 beds. Nearby, a private developer created 104 all-inclusive, 260 SF units that have kitchenettes and bathrooms.

Between the university and private developers, there are about 400 student housing-style housing units near the campus. But that is not enough, Clark said.

“I think the sweet spot is for the university to have housing for about 10% to 12% of the student population,” he said. “The private sector would fill in the rest.”

Tacoma is an optimal site for this type of student housing to take hold. Before UWT entered the area, the city’s downtown had shriveled to a less-than-vibrant area. Its main drag, Pacific Avenue, was known for prostitutes, gang violence and homelessness.

Local officials credit the University of Washington’s arrival to its 21st and Pacific location in 1990 as the impetus for change.

Now, buildings near UWT that sat empty for years are filling with retail, office space and multifamily housing. The area is known as The Brewery District. The name is a nod to the large number of breweries that once used the zone’s underground aquifer for beer production.

The area’s renewed vibrancy, along with the growing student population, makes for attractive real estate investment, Clark said.

The University of Washington Tacoma enrollment continues to grow rapidly, driving the demand for student housing.

“There is still a market for housing,” he said, noting that the under-construction mixed-use Town Center project will include some student housing, as will other nearby developments.

The university is encouraging students to use mass transit options, as parking in the downtown area is limited.

South Transit is adding 2.4 miles and six stations to Tacoma Link, a free mass transit system that runs right by the campus and through downtown. The $175M expansion will cut into the Hilltop neighborhood and is scheduled to be complete in 2022.

“For the private sector, this area is ripe for continued growth in the housing market,” Clark said. “But it’s going to get saturated and the first ones in will get the wins.”

Demand for housing will only increase when the 230K SF Frank Russell Building — which was recently vacated by State Farm — is once again leased. Clark expects that will happen soon.

“Tacoma is a cool place to live,” he said. “We have the same characteristics as Seattle: the water, the mountain views. Tacoma is more of a marathon market that requires that you be patient with your investment. People with the right wherewithal will make money here.”

Find out more about what is shaping student housing demand at Bisnow's Pacific Northwest Student Housing and Higher Education Summit Oct. 25 at The Sanctuary in Seattle.