Demystifying Off-Campus Housing

Every year, the junior class goes through the same cycle of jealousies and rumors, celebrations, complaints and quarrels as the off-campus housing process waxes and wanes. Although the current policies have been in place for close to fifteen years, many students appear to remain uncertain of how the process works and why the College won’t grant more students the freedom to choose where they want to live.

Abby Hawkins, News Editor

Numbers Game

According to Molly Tyson, Associate Dean and Director of Residential Education, over the last fifteen years the College has gradually decreased the number of students living off campus as a response to frequent reports of absentee landlords and unsafe living conditions in off-campus houses. While some 34 percent of students once lived off-campus, that number has since been reduced to approximately 13 percent.

“The College decided to focus more on its role as a residential liberal arts campus. … It’s been a slow process over a very long period of time,” Tyson said.

Tyson pointed to the variety of Village housing options as an example of how this transition still allows students a range of living spaces.

According to College senior Laura Dellplain, who is currently living off-campus after a summer-long struggle to secure a house in Oberlin, “It feels like the next step toward adulthood. There’s a greater sense of independence and you create a sort of family with your friends. There are some Village houses that give that experience, but there are so few that you can’t bank on getting one.”

The off-campus housing process functions in two rounds. ResEd notifies approximately 80 percent of students who will be receiving off-campus status during the fall semester. An enrollment management team consisting of the Office of Financial Aid, the Admissions Office, the Office of Finance, ResEd, the Dean of Studies’ office and the Registrar then meet and analyze institution research in an effort to determine the projected number of incoming and returning students. The rest of the students are not notified until spring, after the team has the opportunity to consult these figures and to allow students who were abroad fall semester, perhaps sans Internet access, the chance to apply.

According to Tyson, “There is a whole committee that works on this; it’s not just ResEd sitting in an office making these decisions. … It’s a very large numbers game.”

ResEd then assigns a random number to each name on the list of students who have confirmed their desire for off-campus housing and sorts these names in random number order in order to make final decisions on which students are granted off-campus status. Off-campus is automatically granted to fifth years and individuals who are over the age of 23, live with their parents within a 50 mile radius of Oberlin, are married or in domestic partnerships or live with children.

Of the 2,945 students currently enrolled at Oberlin, approximately 350 undergraduates received off-campus status, leaving 480 students in Village housing and the other 2,115 either in residence halls or in co-ops.

Those who do venture out of the confines of campus to find their own housing options are met with a number of advantages — greater independence, significantly cheaper rents and the opportunity to live with a group of close friends — but also face unforeseen challenges. Students are often forced to split up their original housing groups because the options available don’t fit the desired number of residents, or to live with strangers because their friends didn’t obtain off-campus status. They have to compete to sign leases for desirable houses, all the while facing landlords that can be unreliable or dishonest.

As Dellplain noted, “We first decided that we didn’t want to live off-campus because we had heard that it’s a very stressful process. … It was the most stressful situation that I’ve ever been in. I’m a very privileged person, and the fact that this was one of most difficult things I’ve had to deal with speaks to that, but it was still awful.”

College senior Nora Graubard and her six housemates experienced little of this stress in securing their off-campus house for the year. The seven girls registered together as a group and already had their lease worked out by the time they were accepted on the first-round. Graubard cited connections with past house occupants and planning ahead as essential to securing the house they’d chosen.

“We knew we wanted 123 [South Professor] and realized it was kind of a coveted house,” Graubard said. “My housemate knew someone who lived there six years ago, … and he got in touch with Jerry, the landlord. They met and he told us that he’d save the lease for us and hoped that we got off-campus. … We were going to do the call every day and wait patiently thing [to get granted off-campus status], but it was a load off our minds to get it all at the same time.”

Graubard recognizes her luck in having a landlord who is receptive, communicative and understands the College’s housing process. She recounted the example of a group of current seniors whose landlady failed to inform them that their house was repeatedly broken into over the summer and briefly played host to a group of squatters.

“A lot of kids get screwed,” Graubard insisted. “I have a great landlord. … That’s not the case for lot of students at Oberlin — people get royally fucked. Those guys’ electricity was off when they moved in.”

“The system is just broken”

Dellplain and the five friends with whom she is living experienced an extreme example of the underhanded nature of some local landlords. After unexpectedly making it off of the off-campus summer waitlist, Dellplain and her group had to scramble to find a house and get a lease signed before the start of the school year. The group did not anticipate that the landlady with whom they eventually decided to rent was illegally subletting a house she did not own.

“She was in a land contract with the previous owner, meaning that she couldn’t pay for the house so she is paying the owner a certain amount of money every month. Part of this contract is that its illegal to sublet it; she actually had no right to rent the house,” Dellplain said.

This information was not brought forward until over a month after Dellplain began her search to find a house. After having been denied Village housing, the group decided to go on the off-campus waitlist in the hopes of finding housing closer to each other. In mid-summer, they were notified that they’d all been granted off-campus status.

ResEd also informed the students that they would have one week to decide if they wanted to move off-campus and that once they decided, their original on-campus housing placements would be revoked. Dellplain embarked on a frantic search to secure a house and hastily made an arrangement with the landlady of a property on North Main.

Because the woman insisted that her attorney, who was supposedly on summer vacation, would deal with all lease-related issues, several weeks passed before Dellplain’s father contacted the attorney and discovered that although the landlady was his client, he’d heard nothing about the lease. Further inquiries revealed that neither the utilities nor the title of the house were in the landlady’s name. Dellplain gradually learned of the details of the land contract and worked to communicate with the landlady. She responded by changing her phone number and email. With just three weeks before the start of school, the group members became increasingly distressed.

“I called Sean, who I must say has been nothing but helpful and supportive. He tried really hard throughout the process, but the system is just broken. … Sean offered to find dorms for everyone, but this is our last year at Oberlin, our last year in college. We were not going to live in dorms,” Dellplain said.

The stepmother of one of her future housemates, an attorney herself, contacted the previous owner, a former professor at the Conservatory. Although the professor expressed outrage at the situation and was reluctant to lease the house to the students, he acquiesced on the basis that the students had no other option. Two weeks into school, the group still does not have hot water or gas in their house.

Although Dellplain’s story is unique, it speaks to the difficulty of finding trustworthy landlords and to the imperfect nature of the waitlist system.

According to Tyson, “The majority of people [on the waitlist] were taken care of as long as they asked for something reasonable. … A lot of shuffling happens — students decide not to come back for personal or medical leave, students go abroad.”

Students are taken off the waitlist based on their semesters in residence, the date and time that their request was submitted and, finally, their availability. This summer, 25 students who fit ResEd’s qualifications of six or more semesters in residence were offered off-campus housing off the waitlist. 20 accepted.

The waitlist is one of ResEd’s many tactics to try to accommodate the large volume of students who request off-campus. Over the last fifteen years, the College has also purchased a number of houses near campus and the Firelands apartment complex and converted them into Village housing. The Union Street houses opened to students in 2005. In 2007, they changed the off-campus process to fall semester to allow students who would be abroad in the spring to meet landlords and sign leases during the autumn. After the construction of Kahn Hall last year, which threatened to draw the percentage of students living off-campus down to seven, ResEd decided to officially set a minimum of 10 percent of students living off campus each year.

As Tyson remarked, “Obviously, ideally, if the Office of Residential Education could provide everybody with exactly what they wanted all the time it would make all of our lives a lot easier and a lot happier. But one of the benefits of being at Oberlin College is that we have such a variety of housing. That’s also our curse. We have the 10 program houses, theme housing, Village, etcetera — we have a huge selection, but it is all in limited supply.”

In whose interest?

Despite the trials of obtaining an off-campus slot and the wealth of other options, some students insist that there are fundamental differences in the off-campus experience, such as the freedom to throw parties and the opportunity to interact with neighboring local residents, live independently and practice being adults.

As Graubard said, “I love living in a house and taking care of a house. I can see the beauty of Village housing; they deal with problems. People shovel your driveway in winter — I don’t want to do that! But I think it’s important to learn basic things like what utilities actually cost, how to deal with garbage properly, and what order to use scary bathroom cleaners in before we graduate.”

Both Dellplain and Graubard also brought up the significant difference in costs between living off-campus and on. Graubard pays $275 per month plus utilities for her seven-person house, while Dellplain pays $250 per month plus utilities, which range from $100 to $400 depending on the season. As a comparison, a single apartment in Firelands costs $3,475 per semester.

According to Dellplain, “It’s just so much cheaper, and I know this is a concern for lots of Oberlin students. I calculated the difference between off-campus and Village, and it came out to something like $2,000 per semester.”

Tyson insists that the higher costs of Village housing are explicitly explained in the Housing and Dining Agreement that students must sign each year, and that room and board fees cover far more than just housing and dining fees.

The agreement states, “Room and Board fees pay for the staff, programs and facilities that sustain a comprehensive living environment for a residential college with a geographically diverse student population, as well as College overhead costs.”

“The fees are set in order to balance the budget,” Tyson said. “It’s kind of simple. The College needs to balance its budget in order to stay operational.”

Because off-campus is randomly assigned, students have no ability to decide whether or not they want to pay these additional fees. The seeming arbitrariness of some aspects of the housing process is also evidenced by the fact that academic leaves of absence, or studying abroad, counts towards one’s six semesters in residence, but the same does not apply for students who take medical or personal leaves.

Despite the imperfections of the system, Oberlin has a significantly higher percentage of students living off-campus than many comparable small liberal arts institutions. While students at many larger universities are able to move off campus after their first year, only two percent of students at both Kenyon and Vassar live off-campus. At Wesleyan and Wooster, this number drops to a meager one percent.