Staff Editorial: Many factors cause housing crunch at AU

Predicting housing demand on a college campus is an inexact science. There are no fool-proof formulas. This is especially true at a tuition-dependent, urban institution where housing availability is frequently a "make or break" factor in a student's decision about attending. This year presented an especially complex set of circumstances for the staff of Residential Life and Housing Services.

Students frequently ask why we end up in an over-capacity housing situation. There are several factors that contribute to this. (1) The size of the incoming freshman class. This year, AU has paid deposits from 1,364 freshman, 124 more than the 1,240 target. (2) The size of the incoming transfer student class. AU hit its target of 360 almost exactly. (3) The number of returning students wishing to live on campus. We experienced a much higher reservation rate than normal of students in this category. (4) The availability of housing in the off-campus market. In D.C., it is a landlord's market. Many people are looking for housing. This allows landlords to charge high rents for the few available apartments. (5) The healthy national economy. When the economy is good, people tend to stay in expensive cities, like Washington.

Finally, because we are in Washington, the election year has contributed to our housing crunch in two ways: the Washington Semester program historically has a very high enrollment during election years, and this year is no exception. The Tenley Campus is filled to capacity. The election also brings more people in general to D.C., which further tightens the off-campus housing market.

This year, all of these factors converged to create the housing situation we have. Some of these factors are easily planned for, like the election; others, like the high number of freshmen accepting offers of admission are not. Alternatives for meeting high demand are limited. A new building, for example, takes more than a year to plan and construct. In the D.C. area, leasing clusters of off-campus apartments for students is not only expensive but also nearly impossible to find any that are available. The same is true for buying off-campus properties. This leaves us with two choices -- turn students away or look for ways to maximize our on-campus space. Thus, we end up with triples and students housed in lounges. AU is not alone in this situation, as many schools in the area and across the country are currently faced with a high demand for on-campus housing.

Contrary to what some think, the decision to house students in triples and lounges is not made lightly nor is it haphazard. Certain policies guide our work. For example, we do not house freshmen with upperclass students, and early decision students are guaranteed double rooms in their first choice of building. The fact that temporary triples are a possibility for most other students is widely publicized. It is in the materials distributed by Enrollment Services during the admissions process, and we discuss it with prospective students during Freshman Day and New Student Orientation. Since we use the date of paid enrollment deposit to the university to establish the priority for assigning housing, we are frequently asked why we can't predict what date will mark the start of tripling. Again, that's complicated by many factors. Simply depositing on time (by May 1, which is the admissions deadline) does not guarantee a double room, as many students pay deposits well before that date. For the past couple of years, students with deposit dates around April 25th have been the earliest ones tripled. Students with the absolute latest dates are the ones who are assigned to lounges on a temporary basis.

It's often speculated that room tripling has a negative effect on students' academic performance. Actually, studies do not demonstrate any ill effects for students who have been housed in triple rooms. Neither academic success nor retention at the university seems to be affected by this type of housing arrangement.

The positive spirit expressed by the vast majority of new students and their parents during Welcome Week pleases us. We've implemented special efforts to help roommates negotiate healthy, accommodating living arrangements with one another, and we are confident most will succeed. We're ready to help those who experience difficulties while the de-tripling process, which has already begun, continues throughout the semester.

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