Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Luther Sells Out

This morning Last week, students at Luther Seminary learned that their dorms were going to be privatized.*

Well, sort of.  The seminary has arranged to sell two apartment buildings, which are currently used for student housing.  The purchasers have agreed to make some improvements to the property, and to allow current students to continue renting.  Their rent, students have been assured, will not increase by more than 10%.  In turn, the seminary will be able to pay off some or all of the money it borrowed from its endowment fund.

At least that's the plan.  Will the new owners turn out to be what in New York are called "Dracula Landlords," the kind who charge too much and offer too little, turning the neighborhood into a slum?  Will the improvements cost so much that, to recoup their losses, the landlords gradually edge out students in favor of some more monied class of renters?  Will they try to "flip" the building when the market turns, or begin the process of turning the buildings into co-ops?

Who knows?

We're told that there's a great deal of anxiety on the campus today, which is to be expected.  We'd be anxious, too.

To be honest, though, this could be a good thing for the seminary without being a particularly bad one for its students.  Schools, like churches, sometimes wind up in the landlord business without being particularly well-equipped for it.  It's not their core mission, and there's a pretty good argument that they shouldn't waste resources playing catch-up ball.  Since 1999, the Army has been privatizing its base housing -- getting out of residential real estate, which isn't its core mission either -- apparently with no ill effects.

We're generally cynical about maneuvers like this.  Many congregations have sold their parsonage to make a much-needed upfront buck, but then found themselves unable to compensate a new pastor for local housing.  But the situation here is different, if only because of the numbers.  Student bodies rise and shrink; maintenance costs on an apartment are relatively fixed.  A building that can house 50 people becomes a terrible strain on a school that needs housing for 25.

If congregations all over America are in a crisis, seminaries are in a worse one.  And compared to the the half-assed ideas that are being floated in the world of theological education these days -- dropping Greek and Hebrew, "terminal internships," cutting whole years out of the experience that should in theory prepare a pastor for a lifetime of ministry -- selling off a few buildings looks like genius.

* Thanks to Vicar Dan for the timeline correction; see his note below for information on the poor condition of the buildings at present.


Daniel Rinehart said...

Pedantry alert, although this seems like a pedantry-friendly space: the announcement came out on Monday, February 10, just over a week ago; they held a meeting and sent out an email. (I'm a Luther student on internship in the Twin Cities; I live right next to campus but not on campus. I was not at the meeting but received the email.)

One piece that I think deserves to be mentioned is that the apartment buildings in question are desperately in need of renovation. I haven't lived in them myself, so I don't really have the right to complain, but I've heard lots of horror stories from classmates who have—mold; dirty water dripping from the bedroom ceiling on you while you sleep; massive box elder bug infestations. The buyer has "indicated" that they will invest in renovations. So there's that.

Father Anonymous said...

Hah! One man's pedantry is another man's attention to detail. Scrupulous attention to detail.

Seriously, though, thanks for the clarification and amplification. I'll edit my post accordingly.

The poor condition of the buildings, sadly, is no surprise. The school wouldn't be selling them if it weren't financially strapped, and student housing is a relatively easy place to economize. (Still: Ick.)

I really do hope this works out well for everyone concerned, and as I said yesterday, it is easy to believe that it may.