Apartment Closings Mean Population Shift

UT's Sutherland apartments may not be missed, but families there must search for new places to live

"EMERGENCY...ROOF OFF A-BUILDING," text-yells a Feb. 12 work order from the University of Tennessee's Golf Range Apartments in the direction of whichever maintenance guy had the misfortune to receive it.

On the other hand, here's the last maintenance request at the Holt Avenue Apartments that apparently merited any kind of capitalization: "CALLBACK 2/14/2009. Unstop Commode."

A fussy toilet is an innocuous annoyance, but when a building experiences occasional rooflessness—even one-time rooflessness—it's really just a "building" in name only.

So that's the kind of week that lends credence to the university's position on the graduate-and-family student apartment complex Golf Range, built in 1966, and its sister complex the Sutherland Avenue Apartments, built in 1971, both on Sutherland Avenue about three miles west of central campus. The two complexes, made up of 840 apartment—627 of which are occupied—are, says UT Housing Executive Director Ken Stoner, beyond repair. They are scheduled to be closed in May 2010.

"They need to be taken down," says Stoner, as they have a laundry list of code issues typical of the buildings' 20th-century design. "The doors don't meet ADA code. The stairs don't meet current codes. You cannot reconfigure the building, you'd have to put new stairwells on the ends of the buildings. They don't have addressable fire systems. You know, all new structures built by the university have sprinklers—they don't have sprinklers."

What that all means is that it would be prohibitively expensive to fix everything.

"It's like they just threw it back in our faces," says Tina Spiers, a 29-year-old woman who lives in a Sutherland apartment with her student husband and three daughters. Spiers says that in her three-and-a-half-years there, it was a constant struggle just to get basic maintenance done in her building. "They're not gonna fix them, they'll just tear them down."

UT officials estimate that it would cost even more to bring all 38 of the Sutherland Avenue apartment buildings up to current standards than it would to tear them down and build a new complex large enough to accommodate the same number of students. And even that would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million.

"Then we had to ask ourselves, ‘So is it worth it to build new?'" says Stoner. And, based on numbers that suggest decreasing demand for graduate and family housing—and have led UT Housing to close three other graduate buildings since 2003—they decided it wasn't.

Spiers says that she's not overly fond of the complex, but, at three bedrooms and 750 square feet, it's large enough for the family. And at, $517 a month, they can afford it, even though neither of them is currently employed.

For the rest of the campus the apartments on Sutherland are unique to UTK for a number of reasons. One is that they will be the last so-called "married student housing" facilities left on campus.

Currently, there are no plans to re-accomodate married couples anywhere else on campus.

But Joann Hartmann, assistant director of student services for UTK's Center for International Education, won't accept that. She says that she will be meeting with Stoner next month to discuss the possibility of setting aside wings of some of the existing residential halls for families.

Hartmann's getting involved because the Sutherland buildings are well-known for housing a disproportionate number of international students.

"I couldn't give you a percentage, but a large majority of them are international students," mostly from China, Korea, and India, says Hartmann.

Hartmann says that the elimination of apartments for these students will be a hardship for them. A three-bedroom apartment for $540 at Sutherland fits the budget of students often forced by stipulations on their student visas to work only in low-paying university jobs. For international students who more often don't have cars, Sutherland is a quick, convenient KAT bus ride to central campus.

Plus, the advantage of a de facto "international housing" situation is that students from the same countries will often help out with the set-up drudgery.

"They have really good support groups," Hartmann says. "An Indian student will assist incoming Indian students with getting their apartment."

The university didn't publicize the decision until Wednesday, Feb. 18, sending out an e-mail to residents announcing a meeting at 5:30 p.m., though Stoner says that his office reached out "to some constituents."

But the Sutherland plan had been a long time coming. According to a housing budget report, by March 2008, the university was working with local architectural firm Michael Brady, Inc., to put together a "redevelopment" (which, in both municipal and university language, often means demolition) plan. And university operations department meeting minutes show that as early as 2005, Jeff Maples, senior vice chancellor for finance and administration, acknowledged the closure had been "discussed as a possibility."

"We got the announcement from our neighbors coming over that day and telling us there was going to be a meeting, and they were going to announce they were closing it," Spiers says. "We had no idea."