‘It felt like there were 4000 people calling for 100 apartments’: After WU announces fall plan, juniors and seniors scramble to find off-campus housing

| Associate Editor

With Washington University’s announced fall semester plan only guaranteeing housing for freshmen and sophomore students, many juniors and seniors who had housing contracts with Residential Life for the 2020-21 academic year have struggled to secure off-campus housing. 

Approximately 1,600 upperclassmen had their contracts jeopardized, interim Dean of Students Kawanna Leggett said in a town hall Aug. 3.

Apartments in the neighborhoods near campus have been hard to come by, students said, as people have snapped up leases. Students also reported seeing that some monthly rents had shot up.

Grace Bruton | Student Life

The clock tower on the South 40, where all freshmen and some sophomores will live this fall. Residential Life is not guaranteeing housing for juniors and seniors, so many students have been forced to search for off-campus housing under time pressures.

“I think it’s not fair to [the students],” Student Union President sophomore Ranen Miao said. “To see this policy come out pretty late about how students are going to need to find off-campus housing or not come back to St. Louis was really hard to hear, because I know that a lot of students just didn’t have the appropriate time.”

The decision to only guarantee housing for freshmen and sophomores comes as the University seeks to reduce the density of campus housing to limit the spread of COVID-19, but many students echoed Miao’s sentiment, expressing dismay that the announcement had not come earlier.

Leggett maintained that the University did the best it could to provide students with information about the fall as soon as it was available. 

“We were hopeful that the situation in St. Louis would be better at this point, and we announced the plan for the fall at the earliest possible time once we knew how much we would need to reduce density in campus housing,” she wrote in an email to Student Life. “We understand the timing was not ideal, but COVID-19 has required us to shift quickly as the situation continues to unfold.” 

Because the University did not expand on how to find alternate housing in the initial July 31 email, senior Jessica Yu organized resources to help low-income and other students find off-campus housing and figure out how to weigh their decisions financially. 

“The University should have done it sooner. They had four months and then they gave students five days,” Yu said, referring to the 5 p.m. deadline on Aug. 5 for students to tell the University whether they would be studying in person this fall or remotely. “They could have told students earlier so that they actually had time to prepare for it,” she said. 

With that deadline bearing down and the start of the semester just six weeks away, students immediately started looking for places to live. “As soon as the email came out Friday, I was like ‘This is a mad search, everybody is looking. I have to do this as fast as possible,’” junior Katie McGilvery said. McGilvery had planned to live in University housing at the Village before the announcement. 

Even when students found lists of available apartments, they found that many had already been taken. “So many units have been taken up so quickly that I know a lot of students are worried they won’t be able to find something close to campus,” Yu said.

Realtors confirmed spikes in demand for off-campus housing. For Max Barron, the vice president of Philip H. Barron Realty, which owns numerous buildings in University City and other neighborhoods close to campus, the volume of apartment requests over the last few days has been unprecedented. “I’ve never had more calls in that span of time,” he said.

The University also contributed to students’ housing challenges by reserving 450 beds off-campus, at locations ranging from Everly on the Loop and the Moonrise Hotel, a boutique hotel on the Delmar Loop, to individual properties owned by Quadrangle, a University subsidiary. The University’s contract with Moonrise covers all 125 rooms at the hotel and will last the entire academic year, hotel general manager Jake Westcott confirmed to Student Life.

Some juniors and seniors will be able to live in University-owned housing, but only after going through a special housing selection process

The Office of Residential Life provided resources for finding off-campus housing in an email to students on Aug. 4, featuring a list of tips for the housing search and including a link to the University’s Apartment Referral Service, which lists apartments in neighborhoods surrounding the Danforth Campus and has a tool for finding roommates.

According to Leggett, the Aug. 4 email came after Residential Life “carefully reviewed” student inquiries about the fall plan. 

“As plans continue to develop, our office is working to be flexible and appropriately responsive to needs expressed by our students in line with the American College Association and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations,” she wrote.

Yet, as with the initial announcement of the fall plan, students decried the resources email as coming too late.

“They waited to send out that email,” McGilvery said. “It just seemed like they didn’t care.”

On the afternoon of Aug. 6, McGilvery was finally preparing to sign a lease on a two-bedroom apartment in the Skinker-Debaliviere neighborhood after a week of looking for a place. “I was very anxious,” she said. “Every morning I would wake up, immediately get on [apartment hunting websites] and pore over apartment after apartment. I would get really upset for the rest of the day if I couldn’t find anything.”

The reports of rising rents only amplified that frustration. “It seemed like all of these apartments were suddenly going for more than they were worth,” McGilvery said. “I definitely feel like prices may have been inflated because of the urgency.”

The thought of not being able to afford an apartment worried her throughout the week, as communications from Student Financial Services had been sporadic and confusing. The University has said that students can use their financial aid package to cover off-campus housing as long as they are not living at home, but McGilvery wished that the University had sent an email telling students how much of their rent they could expect financial aid to cover. “[The University] really put it on students to ask [SFS] for help,” rather than being proactive with financial aid, she said.

Finding nearby apartments themselves, let alone relatively inexpensive ones, was a struggle for many. As of Aug. 6, there were just 12 two-bedroom apartments and 14 three-bedroom apartments on ARS in the 63130 and 63112 zipcodes, which cover the popular neighborhoods north and east of campus. As a result, students have been searching for housing in neighborhoods where they typically do not look for apartments, from downtown Clayton to the Central West End and the Grove. 

Junior Lacy Wilder was one of the students who abandoned the neighborhoods close to campus. Prior to the announcement, Wilder and her roommate planned to live in Residential Life housing. After a day of calling landlords and realtors, the pair ended up in Clayton, a mile and a half away from campus. “It was like every time we would call a place, it had just gotten filled. It felt like there were 4000 people trying to compete for 100 apartments,” Wilder said. “The realtor from the place that we ended up going with was telling me that she couldn’t even make it two minutes without getting a phone call.”

Leggett acknowledged the hurdles students have faced in searching for housing, arguing that the changes to housing were necessary to keep the campus community safe.

“We regret that this situation has created a challenging situation for some of our students, but we must reduce campus density to protect the health and safety of our entire university community, including, importantly, our students,” she wrote.

As more students found housing and could start to solidify their plans for the fall semester, Miao said there is still work to be done. “I empathize with every single person who is struggling,” Miao said. “We will continue working with Residential Life to make sure that we’re able to address the housing crisis that’s happening right now.”

Editor’s note: The Fall 2020 WashU crisis aid spreadsheet, where community members can provide and receive mutual aid, is here. This story also appears in The Starting Line, Student Life’s issue for first-year students. It has been updated from that version to include comments from Residential Life.

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