Oxford Feels Stress from Development Boom

Published on: December 11, 2015


Lance Wiedower, The Memphis News

Kent Wunderlich travels to Oxford, Miss., often, in part because his grandson is the kicker on the University of Mississippi football team.

But the Financial Federal CEO has also found his way to the North Mississippi town through the years for professional reasons. As an attorney, one of his first tasks was to foreclose on an Oxford apartment project in 1987. That was more of an isolated event; it’s been over the past 10 or so years that Financial Federal really began lending in earnest for residential and commercial projects in Oxford.

And a growing demand for single-family, multifamily and student housing is driving that business.

“Like other college towns, it’s grown,” Wunderlich said. “The demand exceeds the supply. It has a great demand for housing, which we do a lot of. That’s part of our expertise.”

As that demand continues, it is causing the city to take pause and plan a roadmap for how it handles the growth. Oxford is in the final planning stages of Vision 2037, a 20-year comprehensive plan that will provide a roadmap for a city that is growing and has to plan around challenges that come in part from a university student population that isn’t counted in the U.S. Census.

"I’ve found since 2005, we’ve had a bullseye on us with multifamily growth nationally,” said Andrea Correll, planning director for the city of Oxford. “If you go through trade magazines nationally, Oxford is seen as a premier place to locate multifamily development. When studying that, if we built out in 2037 as we’re zoned today, we’d be 62 percent multifamily. That’s not the development pattern the city wants.”

Vision 2037 will go through the final public hearing process in the coming months with a planned adoption in early 2016. It will be a living document updated yearly as the city moves toward its 200th anniversary in 2037. 

The city’s population is predicted to more than double, from its current estimated 20,865 to 45,000 by 2040. And with only 10 percent of developable land remaining in the city limits, Oxford faces growing pains as it looks for the best ways to house new residents.

Correll said Lafayette County is the fastest growing in Mississippi. Oxford also is one of the most expensive places to live in the state.

“The university’s enrollment grows, but that’s not what’s growing Oxford,” she said, hinting at the draw “back home” for Ole Miss fans and graduates. “It’s our major employer and facilitator, but one of the things we’re feeling growth pains about is looking at housing costs vs. income in counties in Mississippi. Lafayette County has the highest housing costs vs. income, which is affecting our growth.”

Wunderlich agreed, saying a housing solution is needed for those people who can’t afford homes in the $600,000-plus range.

Rick Wood, executive vice president for Financial Federal’s commercial and multifamily division, said the growth in that sector in part is meant to meet the population demand. Historically, the city hasn’t had a heavy conventional base of apartments, meaning the new product coming online is needed.

And what is in the works for student housing is different than traditional multifamily products in that it’s rented by the bed instead of by the unit. That’s a trend in many college communities that has increased over the past four years, Wood said.

The university and the city’s historic character in and around the square are attractive qualities to future homebuyers. And as those new student housing developments come online, Correll said it’s important to ensure future development follows that character.

That will happen in the plan with a new land use called traditional neighborhood. It’s made up mostly of single-family housing with some smaller multifamily opportunities mixed in. It also could allow for small mixed-use developments with retail opportunities so university students who choose to live in those communities won’t do so in isolation.

That is just one part of the larger Vision 2037, which will have some 100 prioritized implementations.

“These implementations are as simple as the needs in the development ordinance that is to be written as a result of this plan or the need of the housing committee to work with affordable housing in Oxford,” Correll said. “It looks at everything from the big picture to the small details. One of the issues is finding out how Oxford should grow in the future and what are the priorities for quality growth in the city.”

Wood is concerned about future development in Oxford, in part because of the stress it’s placing on the city’s roads.

“The infrastructure needs to catch up with the growth,” he said. “The apartments and single-family are being built farther from the core area so the transit system is well behind the curve.”

It’s something Correll said she hopes the new development vision will address.

"Vision 2037 represents Oxford’s answer to these very global questions of how we’re going to develop in the future and what makes Oxford special,” she said. “The plan has been developed with lots of input from advisory boards and citizens and public meetings, so it reflects answers to the questions being raised.”