Students, Landlords Overwhelmed As Wash U Restricts On-Campus Housing Options
Updated Aug. 10 with a statement from Washington University
Some Washington University students are scrambling to find apartments after the university announced last week that it would decrease available on-campus housing to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
After Wash U announced its plans on July 31, students flooded Facebook groups to find housing near the school’s campus west of Forest Park.
“Hi there! A sad and confused Wash U senior here,” started one message from a sorority member looking for housing for herself and three friends. Other students described themselves as “scrambling” in social media posts.
The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in St. Louis has increased by 15% in the past year, according to Zumper’s National Rent Report. Several real estate offices leasing apartments told St. Louis Public Radio they’re now receiving far more applications than they have units to lease.
Former real estate agent Brian Adler said that around 20 students contacted him when he posted a listing for his duplex apartment in the Grove — even though living in the entertainment district is less popular among students, who often prefer to be within walking distance of campus.
“They’re running out of options pretty quickly,” said Adler, who attended Wash U as an undergraduate. “It’s been something I’ve never seen before, where students are looking in neighborhoods they never would have considered before, because in University City and Skinker-DeBaliviere there’s really nothing left available.”
St. Louis Public Radio contacted a dozen other real estate agents and property managers who listed properties near campus. Four responded, and all said they couldn’t speak on the record due to their contracts or policies. But they all described a similar rental market: one with “crazy” and “overwhelming” numbers of applications, sometimes dozens for the same apartment, with some students offering to pay extra — or even double — just to secure a lease.
‘An absolute nightmare’
The search for housing hasn’t gone well for students like Alanna Bader, who can’t afford the extra cost or can't live far from campus.
“It has been an absolute nightmare,” said Bader, an upperclassman in Wash U’s School of Engineering. “Everyone is fighting tooth and nail to get whatever is left this last-minute in the game.”
A gymnastics injury left Bader with limited mobility and a complicated medical history in 2016. She had planned to live with three friends who all know what to do if she needs to be taken to the emergency room, especially since she can’t drive herself.
But Bader said they were unable to find a four-bedroom apartment within the distance she can walk to campus, so one roommate dropped off. Even now, looking for two- or three-bedroom apartments, Bader said the few options are too expensive, too far away or leased before she had a chance to apply.
Bader said she has lost count of how many times she’s called Wash U. But the multiple offices she’s called have not gotten back to her, she said.
“We understand that this is a really difficult situation, and we are also disappointed that we can't provide housing for all of our juniors and seniors,” the Office of Residential Life wrote in a statement to students this week. The office offers several resources, including moderated apartment listings and a program for students who live in neighborhoods near the campus.
What schools are doing
St. Louis University also chose to restrict its dorm access, though only by about 10%, according to officials.
“We had to really think about not wanting to say to students, ‘You thought you had a contract. Now you don’t. Good luck,’” said Debra Lohe, SLU’s vice president for student development. Lohe said that so far, many students have chosen to voluntarily cancel their housing contracts, so SLU has not had to find off-campus housing for many.
Lohe said the school chose to try to keep as many students on campus as possible, in part because landlords have no reason to decrease capacity, so students could be more at-risk living in large apartment complexes. Available housing is also limited close to SLU, Lohe said.
University of Missouri-St. Louis has decided to increase health and safety guidelines but not restrict housing for the fall semester.
A Wash U representative said that the university’s housing team was “slammed” and did not have time to interview for this story.
But the university did email a statement on Monday that said, in part:
"I can tell you that we are doing all we can to accommodate our students during this very unusual and challenging time. We know it is not an ideal situation and we are assisting students as much as possible to find the best available off-campus housing options. ... We regret that this situation has created a challenging situation for our students, but we must reduce campus density to protect the health and safety of our entire university community, including, importantly, our students."
The university is also trying to help students in Bader’s situation through a housing selection process that allows students with financial, medical or other need-based concerns to apply for housing owned by the university, according to the statement. Students are not guaranteed placement through that program, though.
To Bader, who supports herself and relies on student loans, that uncertainty is nerve-wracking.
“I personally don’t have a place to go back to,” she said. “I don’t know, am I going to be homeless? Maybe I can crash on someone’s couch if we don’t find anything.”
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Correction: St. Louis one-bedroom apartments have increased 15% in value in the last year. A previous St. Louis Public Radio report misstated the time frame of the change.