As students look for places to live next year, the West Chester student housing system can seem like a maze of staggering rent rates, scholarships and complicated legal jargon.
The long history of on and off-campus housing has led to a system that can confuse and frustrate students who are unfamiliar with the operation of student housing. Why is affiliated housing so much more expensive than traditional? Where did the affiliated halls come from? What is the plan for housing going forward?
With the recent increase in West Chester’s tuition as well as the sexual harassment incident in Schmidt hall, these questions become more important than ever in a students’ search for the affordable, safe options our university provides.
Initially, “traditional” housing on campus was built with funds from the state and other large investments. The new housing project, called the “Housing Renewal Initiative,” began in 2007, to renovate decades-old buildings and construct new dormitories and apartments. The unavailability of funds like the ones used to build the traditional dorms led to the creation of a private company, University Student Housing (USH), to build and monitor new dorms.
…the fact that one housing option has private bathrooms and the other does not is more than an issue of convenience.
This system would keep the university from going into more debt in order to renovate halls, but gave a large amount of control over rent rates, dorm capacities and other important factors to USH. Because USH is a private company, the university has less control over what they can do or charge.
When it began, the initiative planned to replace all of the dorms on campus with updated ones that would be built and overseen by USH; but, due to the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and student demand for affordable housing, this plan was abandoned in favor of a more limited approach to housing construction. If the original initiative had gone through according to plan, University Student Housing (LLC) would have gained a monopoly over on-campus housing and eventually replace all of the university’s housing with privately owned dorms. While they did not succeed in doing so, the construction of affiliated dorms did create two distinct housing communities, which has shaped the pricing structure as well as WCU dorm culture a decade later.
Because of the high construction costs, maintenance costs and interest rates on bonds which USH had to take out for construction, the company has had to charge rates much higher than those charged by traditional dorms. Some rent rates for affiliated dorms reach over $10,000 per year, nearly twice the rent rates for traditional dorms. The minimum rent option is $2,758 per semester for a traditional double and $4,435 per semester for an affiliated two bedroom double with a living room. The latter number is only set to rise, as the contract that established the dorms specifies that base rent for affiliated dorms will increase by 3% every year. While 3% appears to be a nominal increase, this can compound over years, leading to unsustainable rent rates in the future. Within the past two years, the rent for a double room — the most common room type in affiliated housing — has risen $225 per semester, from $4,770 to $4,995. With the repayment system for the bonds that USH has taken out, students cannot hope to see this increase slow “for the next several years,” according to a USH representative.
Rent difference, to a certain extent, is to be expected between the two housing options. Affiliated halls offer services and utilities that traditional halls don’t, from small provisions like ice machines to larger features like individual bathrooms, vastly larger dorms, pool tables, common lounge areas and more. While the rent charged may reflect construction and renovation costs, the issue becomes twofold.
For one, affiliated housing can be a forced luxury for those who are denied admission into traditional. With half of the dorms on North Campus being under USH, housing, many are unable to find housing in the traditional dorms, leading them to be pushed into a higher payment plan than they can afford. As the largest state school in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), West Chester hosts students from all places of wealth and poverty. While offering higher-end housing with the Housing Renewal Initiative gives students the freedom to choose, that freedom can become a burden when the choice is made for them. The only income requirement in the USH lease is that the “Applicant’s or Sponsor Guarantor’s Monthly Gross Income must be at least three (3) times the total monthly rental rate.” As priority for traditional housing is given to students from impoverished backgrounds, students narrowly fulfilling this requirement can be denied housing in the traditional halls because they are technically wealthy enough to afford affiliated housing. USH’s response to these worries is to fund yearly scholarships for students concerned about housing. This year, over $250,000 in scholarships went to help students afford affiliated living, according to a USH representative.
Many are still finding the scholarships insufficient. Samantha Walsh, a third-year student, struggled to afford the affiliated rates. “I was in a position where I almost didn’t get traditional housing, so we were looking to apply for USH. I’m not from a poor family,” Walsh continued. “We’re middle class, and we still have problems paying for housing.” Even when students receive financial aid, the first deposit for payment in recent years has been due before financial aid comes through. One student who has since graduated from West Chester reported working all summer just to afford the deposit.
University Student Housing, as part of their payment system, also requires at least one guarantor when signing up for housing. A guarantor, a legal adult in sufficient financial standing, must cosign for the lease. Additionally, a credit check is done on this guarantor and the student may be rejected if their credit score is found to be too low. For disadvantaged and lower-class students with parents that may have less-than-optimal credit scores, better housing may be difficult or impossible to attain under the company’s current policy. Even students that do have the money to live in affiliated dorms can still be denied housing because they don’t have a sufficient credit score or a valid cosigner.
The other issue is one of safety. As we saw in the Schmidt Hall intruder incident in September, the fact that one housing option has private bathrooms and the other does not is more than an issue of convenience. With privatized construction comes the funds for safer, more private facilities: room-adjacent bathrooms, more secure locks, better security cameras and faster elevators. While all of this is progress, the asymmetry of the progress puts poorer students at higher risk.
…the university’s administration historically has not had power over what rates the company charges.
Another confusing strand in the web of West Chester’s housing structure is the non-profit status of USH. According to a USH representative, “all revenue above [the company’s] operating costs are returned to either WCU or the WCU Foundation.” While the company gives all proceeds to the university or the foundation as a private associated group that benefits WCU, the university’s administration historically has not had power over what rates the company charges. President Fiorentino has met with USH in the past in an attempt to lower rates, but these meetings have been rare and private.
At an Oct. 2 Town Hall meeting with the Student Government Association, Fiorentino spoke to his relationship with USH in response to a question: “We just came from a board meeting with University Student Housing and I gave them a clear message: we need to be very careful about increasing prices for student housing. But they’re in a similar situation, their costs are going up, so we’re walking that line trying to make sure we’re not letting the buildings degrade.” It appears that President Fiorentino is willing to advocate for affordable rents but that USH makes the final decisions.
The culture that surrounds the differences between traditional and affiliated housing has also proved divisive. The affiliated South Campus Village apartments, created in a second wave of USH construction, adjoin the traditional South Campus Apartment Complex. Similarly, the affiliated Commonwealth Hall is immediately next to the traditional Schmidt Hall on North Campus. Some residents have reported negative attitudes surrounding the traditional halls, which are steeped in classism.
University Student Housing is not the only privatized facility on campus. Aramark, the company that operates on-campus dining, is a massive company which spans the United States and over 20 other countries. As the numbers of students attending WCU has increased, this trend may continue in the absence of public funds to improve and expand the campus leading to more construction by private companies. This could lead to newer, better amenities, but brings into question how much control over our own facilities the school is willing to lose in order to improve the campus, and how much it will cost students.
Brendan Lordan is a second-year student majoring in English writing. BL895080@wcupa.edu