When the University of Chicago announced its reopening plans on June 30, it came with a number of large-scale changes to ordinary campus life: much smaller class sizes, a universal masking policy, and a mix of in-person and remote teaching.
It is the sharp reduction in dormitory capacity, however, that has sent many students scrambling to find apartments over the past few weeks, searching for housing in Hyde Park amid increased demand and, in some cases, uncertainty over whether they will be able to return to campus in the autumn.
Because all dormitories will be reconfigured so that their rooms are single-occupancy, the school’s housing capacity has been reduced by 40%. All incoming first-year students will have housing, and there will be space for some second-year students. Other undergraduates who had planned to return to housing will not be guaranteed a spot, and will instead be placed on a waitlist. If they want to be in Chicago for the fall, they’ll have to find a place to live in the neighborhood.
“It’s been difficult and frustrating — I’ve been thrown into the housing market last-minute. Most people who move off campus find places to live in the early spring months,” said Madeline Paoli, a rising fourth year. “The main issue for me is that the options are going fast and that we’re inevitably dealing with the leftovers in the market. There are some fine options, but if you don’t quickly hop on signing a lease someone else will get it before you.”
In an email announcing the reopening plans, U. of C. President Robert J. Zimmer wrote that any student who had to move off-campus would receive an increase in financial aid. But Paoli says she isn’t yet sure how much she will get.
“The university didn’t give much notice or support. I also haven’t gotten my aid package yet so I technically don’t even know how much money I have to move off,” she said. “I just wish we all would have been given more notice as to what was going to happen.”
Chad Johnson, vice president at Ettinger Realty, which rents out around 10 properties in Hyde Park, said that there had been a “huge spike in interest” after the announcement from the university.
“For about three or four days after the notification went to students, it was one phone call after the next. I was trying to respond to emails while I was on the phone — it’s not normally that fast-paced,” he said. “We get a lot of attention, but on a busy day I might get six to eight phone calls in a row. I couldn’t get anything done because I couldn’t get off the phone.” (Johnson said he had also spoken with a few “anxious parents.”)
A spokesperson for Mac Properties, one of Hyde Park’s largest landlords, said that the company had seen a jump over the past few weeks in the number of students looking for leases, though there were still apartments available to rent.
It is unclear exactly how many students who had planned to live in dorms are now looking for off-campus housing, and therefore how much demand for housing has increased. A 2017 document from the school shows that capacity in still-open residential halls is about 3,255 people. Woodlawn Residential Commons, set to open this fall, will house 1,200 undergraduates — that comes out to a normal capacity of about 4,500 students in the dormitories.
Under the school’s reopening plan, that would leave well over 1,500 students who would ordinarily live on campus without the option to do so. It is unlikely that all of those students are looking for apartments in the neighborhood — some may choose not to come back to campus for the fall, either taking a leave of absence or attending remotely. And many international students are stuck in legal limbo, unsure of whether they will be allowed to return to the United States to study.
Anastasia Shvedova, another rising fourth-year, is one of them. She says that because of travel restrictions she may not come back to campus, but that looking for a possible apartment while uncertain about her status has been difficult.
“Finding a place that’s available is hard enough, and you can’t really afford to be picky about location, commodities, size, etc.,” she said. “I feel like the price-to-convenience ratio has definitely gone up. And most places that are left are either tiny, or very far from campus.”
Still, she thinks the administration has done about as well as could be expected under the circumstances. “As frustrated as I am with the whole situation, I do feel like the university did all they could in terms of on-campus housing. And they are trying to provide more resources for off-campus housing now,” she said. “So I can’t say I’m satisfied because the whole thing sucks, but they did more than they could have.”
Other students already in apartments off-campus have also found their living situations complicated by the new housing landscape. Jemima Adeyinka, a rising fourth-year, has been trying to find new roommates after their old ones left. Many potential roommates, though, are still waiting to hear if they will receive on-campus housing for next year.
“I wish they had given earlier notice, because for me and a lot of people our leases were meant to end in June or July, so now we have to scramble to find roommates and stuff,” they said. “I can’t tell my landlord if I’m actually moving out or not at the end of the month because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find a roommate, since people are unsure if they’ll get on-campus housing or not.”
Adeyinka could move into another apartment, but they have mobility issues due to an old injury, and finding accessible locations can be difficult. “I need a place with an elevator or on a lower floor and buildings with elevators tend to be more expensive,” they said. “Even beyond that I just find housing in Hyde Park to be super expensive, and often I feel like you do not get as much bang for your buck.”
If the COVID-19 pandemic has upended many students’ living situations for next year, it has also forced an unwanted shift, however temporary, in the university’s long-term housing strategy for its undergraduates. Dean of the College John Boyer, in a 2008 report to faculty, outlined a vision for a “more strongly residential campus” that would, among other advantages, “encourage stronger and more supportive cultural and intellectual communities among our students.”
To that end, Boyer suggested the construction of large-scale new residence halls — the university has since carried out this recommendation, opening Renee Granville-Grossman in 2009 and Campus North in 2016, with Woodlawn Residential Commons set to open up this fall. (They also closed smaller satellite dormitories scattered throughout the neighborhood, a move that drew protests from some students.) In addition, the school announced in 2018 that it would require students to live in dorms for two years, a requirement it said in its reopening plan that it would waive for the class of 2023.
That leaves plenty of students in the unexpected position of suddenly finding their own way in the neighborhood. Take Florence Li, a rising second-year, who would ordinarily have to stay in the dorms another year. She said that searching for housing has been “dizzying,” particularly since she and others in her class were only present on campus for two quarters this past year.
“It’s been particularly stressful for the rising second-years because we’re first-time renters in the midst of a pandemic. Most of us don’t have high paying or long-term jobs we can rely on for rent. A lot of us haven’t solidified our friendships,” she said.
Still, she managed to find an apartment. “Finding a good unit took a lot of mental gymnastics, and I’m very grateful we found one,” she said. “The housing announcement was a rude awakening into adulthood, but I’m excited to be here.”