Students encounter barriers in the search for affordable housing near the University
Affordability and availability of University residence hall space poses challenges
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in our December 2021 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Students struggled to find affordable and liveable off-campus housing for the fall 2021 semester as American University’s residence hall space remained limited.
In July, AU announced its 2021 Campus Plan, which includes an initiative to expand on-campus housing availability to accommodate 500 additional students.
According to Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Matthew Bennett, the University’s total housing capacity is currently 4,682 beds between on-campus residence halls. While occupancy rates vary throughout each semester, he said the University typically sees an average occupancy rate of roughly 95 percent.
Edward Fisher, assistant vice president of community and government relations, said this housing expansion component of the campus plan is part of the University’s overarching goal to make campus a “livelier place.”
“We think it enhances your experience as an AU student to be able to have a bond with the campus, other than just coming for class,” Fisher said.
Fisher added that the University plans to make this additional housing “attractive and affordable for students” by pricing it competitively with off-campus properties in Northwest D.C.
Sophomore Nicole Donelan, who is renting a two-bedroom apartment in the Friendship Heights area, will pay approximately $8,000 in rent total over the course of her 12-month lease.
Donelan shares a bedroom with one of her roommates, and they each pay 30 percent of the rent every month. Their third roommate has a private bedroom, paying the larger 40 percent share of monthly costs for her additional space.
A double room in a traditional-style residence hall at the University — Anderson, Hughes, Leonard, Letts, McDowell or Roper — runs between $10,096 and $10,196 for the 2021-2022 academic year.
A double room in suite-style residence halls — Centennial, Cassell or on East Campus — ranges from $11,692 to $12,494 for the 2021-2022 academic year.
“I’m still saving a very considerable amount of money, like thousands of dollars a year, than I would in the dorms for way more space, no RAs, my own kitchen, my own bathroom,” Donelan said.
Donelan added that her ability to opt out of a meal plan as an off-campus student was another cut cost. Sophomores who live on campus must have at least a 100 Block meal plan, which costs $1,644 per semester in exchange for 100 meals and 400 EagleBucks.
While Donelan estimates that she will save approximately $3,000 in her annual housing expenses by living off-campus, she said that her current living situation still exceeds her intended budget.
“The only way I can afford to live off-campus is if I’m paying 30 percent of what the actual rent on a two-bedroom would be,” Donelan said.
Beyond finding affordable housing, some students have struggled to find living situations that are also safe.
Senior Jonathan Amthor and four of his friends signed a two-year lease on a four-bedroom house in the Glover Park area in February 2020.
In May 2021, Amthor and his roommates had their house inspected via Zoom to ensure that it was compliant with the D.C. housing code. During this Zoom call, the inspector found numerous code violations, including broken fire alarms, a staircase without railings and a ceiling that was less than 7 feet 6 inches in height.
The inspector told Amthor and his roommates that the property would be reviewed again in a few months. In June, the house was declared “uninhabitable” due to the absence of windows in one bedroom and the basement’s low ceiling.
Amthor and his housemates had to start looking for alternate housing immediately. He and one of his roommates eventually found an apartment at the Avalon at Foxhall, though he said it was “pricier” than they were aiming for and did not offer the living space that they had hoped to get.
“It took us a little bit [to find housing] because we were hoping to get our own rooms,” Amthor said.
He and his roommate ultimately were not able to find an affordable unit with two separate bedrooms.
Antonio Holley, who manages five different properties including The Elaine, Alto Towers and Macomb Gardens, said that students should “shy away from renting from private homeowners.”
He said that while these properties can be more affordable, landlords have fewer resources when it comes to addressing maintenance issues.
With expensive local real estate options, limited on-campus housing and the possibility for unexpected obstacles like those Amthor faced, Donelan said that the University should offer more resources to students as they sort out their living situations.
Another factor in Donelan having to find off-campus housing largely independently was because her parents were unfamiliar with the process, which she said added another layer of difficulty.
“There are just so many barriers to going through this process that if I had a hard time, someone else is probably going to have an even harder time,” Donelan said.