Student housing drives up Bethlehem’s rent prices


As renting becomes more expensive nationwide, Bethlehem is faced with an affordable housing crisis that affects residents and Lehigh students. 

In 2021 the city drafted a bill that created the Overlay District, an area consisting of housing near Lehigh’s campus. The bill dictates where any future student housing must be located. 

Loren Keim, a professor of real estate and the program manager for the Goodman Center for Real Estate, said he doesn’t think the zone is effective.

“Bethlehem tried to fix something, and I think that they are making it worse in some ways,” Keim said.

He also said there is student housing outside of the Overlay District that’s not impacted because the housing existed before the district was created.

However, landlords will no longer be able to use properties outside the area for student housing once the current occupants move out.

Lehigh’s student expansion and lack of housing options have increased off-campus housing costs, Keim said, as demand allows landlords to raise their prices, which raises concern about gentrification in the area. 

“If you have a population that pays more for something, it pushes other people out,” Keim said.

While gentrification impacts all of Bethlehem, Keim said student housing tends to be the biggest problem directly surrounding Lehigh as landlords and companies can profit from higher-income students. 

He said there are not many solutions to this problem.

Henry Aguilar, ’24, chose to rent a house from Amicus Properties, which promotes rentals on their website as “luxury off-campus housing.” 

Amicus Properties is not technically considered student housing, but they own and rent out a significant number of houses to Lehigh students. 

“The nice thing about living in a rental owned by a larger company like Amicus is that I think the houses are better kept than some other rentals to students that I have seen,” Aguilar said.

He said Bethlehem’s housing markets are geographically close to each other but are different between locals and students.

According to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, approximately 69% of people or families within the state are homeowners.

“Along Fifth Street (Properties), there are some units that rent for $1,000 per student, and if you have four students there, it’s four grand a month,” Keim said. “You are never getting that from a family.”

Bethlehem has attempted to solve this by limiting where student housing can be located.

However, the construction of larger student housing buildings has been rejected in order to preserve the historic character of the area. 

“The challenge ends up being that you either have space or you don’t,” Keim said. “If you can alleviate some of the pressure by having some of these larger buildings, it’ll create a little less pressure on the residents around it.”

SouthSide Commons at 444 Brodhead Ave. is an off-campus student apartment building opened in 2019 with 428 bed spaces.

Tyler Richardson, ’25, said he chose to live in SouthSide Commons because it’s a newer building, in a convenient location where many of his friends also live. 

The rent prices at SouthSide Commons vary from $1,100 to $1,300 per month, which is considered on the expensive side of the spectrum.

“At first, housing costs affected my decision because I was not going to sign the lease if financial aid could not help me out,” Richardson said. 

He said he wouldn’t have rented from SouthSide Commons if he didn’t receive aid.

“Technically, it isn’t a Lehigh building, but I think it functions similarly to one,” Richardson said. “I think to help solve this, Lehigh or the city has to drastically increase student housing, so that local residents are not competing with students for housing.”

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