The Hassle of Housing

illustration by Maggie Dybas
illustration by Maggie Dybas

College life is about more than just academics. We, as students, don't simply exist to learn, graduate and feed into RIT's placement statistics. We are human and require the most basic of needs: food, water and shelter. Many of us live our day-to-day lives within the facilities offered by the university. As such, these facilities need to be accessible, affordable and amenable to the needs of those students within them.

Housing Horrors

Students’ first encounters with housing typically occurs during their first year. As all first year students are required to live in the residence halls unless they are within commuting distance, the vast majority have lived in RIT housing at some point in their academic careers.

While this requirement is in many ways positive — it ensures students have a guaranteed housing plan in place to start off their college lives — there are burdens that come with it.

One such burden is the price tag. For the 2018–2019 academic year, the rate for a multiple-occupancy room was $7,598 in total per person with a nine-month lease. According to RENTCafé, the average renting price for an off-campus home in Henrietta, New York was $1,164 per month. Accounting for a 12-month lease divided by two people, this totals to an average yearly cost of $6,984, making residence halls — with their shared living space, small floor plans and frequent fire alarms — seem an unnecessary and unwanted expense to many.

Another potential burden upon students living in residence halls is the matter of atmosphere. Residence halls are a great place to meet new people and make friends; however, this assumes that the student is looking for that. Residence halls can be noisy, tight spaces with little privacy. Students share recreation areas, lounge areas and in most cases bathrooms, leaving little space for “me time.” This complete lack of privacy could have a heavy negative impact on students’ psyches, especially those who tend to be more introverted or who live with mental conditions that may be further exhausting.

After students’ first year, further options do open up. RIT directly manages multiple housing options, including Perkins Green, Riverknoll, University Commons, Global Village and, up until recently, Colony Manor. Nearby off-campus housing with close partnerships to RIT include the RIT Inn and Conference Center, The Hill, Park Point, Province and The Lodge. These options aren’t always the best or most affordable, either, however.

“I got placed in Riverknoll [after my first year] and I couldn’t afford ... to take out more loans at that point in my life so I went off campus,” said Ashley Kosak, a fifth year Mechanical Engineering student.

The transition, however, isn’t always a smooth one.

“My second year, when I went off campus, was the year that I essentially went homeless for a little bit,” Kosak said. 

While the reasons for her homelessness weren’t directly related to her college life, it still posed a serious problem. After finding housing off campus, she then had to ensure transportation to and from campus. A shuttle that had gone from campus to off-campus apartments such as Bennington Hills and Rustic Village was promised as a viable option; however, upon the start of the semester, this shuttle was taken offline.

Following a year that largely consisted of “bumming rides,” as Kosak described, she decided it was best to look, again, for on-campus housing. Unable to safely afford most housing options, she took a position as a Residence Advisor (RA). RAs, after all, receive significantly discounted housing in the residence halls, as well as a food plan. However, she noted that this, too, was unsecured.

“From an RA perspective, it’s tough to see students who go into ResLife (Residence Life) because that’s all they can afford to do,” she said. “ResLife expects 24/7 perfection from you; they expect you to be a life coach to their residents and they expect you to help them set goals and all that stuff.”

Those who don’t live up to ResLife’s standards may lose their job and, as a result, their housing and food. This can then cause a snowball effect of further problems. For students who signed up for the position due to food and housing insecurities, for example, the loss of this could mean an inability to afford to continue their academic careers at RIT effective immediately.

Not Alone

Nathaniel Thomas, a fifth year double major in the International and Global Studies program and Computer Engineering and Public Policy through the School of Individualized Study, has also had his fair share of experiences with housing insecurity.

“There seems to be a lot of financial snowballs,” Thomas said.

Similarly to Kosak, Thomas had lived in the residence halls his first year at RIT. He explained that he opted to continue living in the residence halls for the first half of the summer, paying a weekly summer rate. Working at Information and Technology Services (ITS) on campus, he was looking to earn money while minimizing expenditures.

Eventually, though, living in the residence halls no longer made sense. With nowhere else to go, Thomas began staying with friends, couch-surfing and finding temporary solutions. His belongings were stored in a staff member’s office in the Student Alumni Union and he proceeded to rely on his friends for as long as he needed. He had thought of looking for an off-campus apartment; however, he was unsure of how to best go about this process, leaving him with few resources readily available.

“Finding housing off campus isn’t that simple — especially if you don’t have parents to figure that out with you,” he said.

“Finding housing off campus isn’t that simple ... ”

To further add to his stress, Thomas also had a financial hold on his account, preventing him from registering for classes. He had to organize a payment plan for tuition before he could even think about his housing situation.

Eventually, though, RIT caught on. After growing suspicious, a faculty member asked Thomas about his living situation. Faced with a decision to either protect himself and lie or to be honest, he opted for honesty. RIT then referred Thomas to the Center for Youth in Rochester, providing a communal living environment.

The Center for Youth, while a fantastic organization whose help Thomas was thankful for, was an inconvenient distance from campus. He biked to and from campus most days. Other days, he would have to utilize public transportation, taking one bus from the Center to downtown, only to switch and take another from downtown to campus. This forced him into a strict schedule as these buses arrived and left at designated times, meaning Thomas had to follow suit.

Eventually, Thomas saved enough money to return to campus, moving into Perkins Green the summer between his second and third year.

Now, Thomas is helping others navigate similar situations, though he was hesitant to reveal specifics in fear of jeopardizing these individuals’ independence and self-determination.

University Assistance

RIT Housing can seem unaffordable to some and inconvenient to others. However, efforts are still being made by Public Safety and Housing Operations to ensure students are provided safe and secure housing, said Carla Dilella, executive director of Housing Operations.

Housing’s primary contact for those students who are dealing with homelessness or similar circumstances is Megan Jaros, manager of case management in the Wellness Department of Student Affairs. Jaros works with a number of partners both within the university and off campus, Housing Operations being included as one such partner.

While the name may seem counter-intuitive, the student conduct team also deals heavily with students in unsafe situations, such as those who find themselves to be homeless — a fact pointed out by both Thomas and Gary Moxley, director of Public Safety.

Moxley sits on the team, along with others from various aspects of campus life. While specific actions are taken on a case-by-case basis, their goal in these situations remains constant; to determine the best contact person for that struggling student going forward, and how best to connect them with further resources to help.

Moxley acknowledged that not every student may necessarily want a “handout.” Likewise, not every student feels they are in a dangerous situation, as staying with friends may seem like a viable solution to many. Rather than take away the student’s self-determination, Moxley and the student conduct team aim to provide resources for the student to help themselves.

"We found that sometimes what we may think is a need, once you dig a little bit deeper with the student, it could be something totally different," Moxley said.

As such, the power very much remains in the hands of the student in need. Through this approach, Moxley hopes that as many students as possible can receive help and be connected to the resources that best serve them.

Additionally, Moxley stated, "You can always call [Public Safety]." They have resources and contacts as well.

Housing Actions

Housing has seen a lot of changes in the last several years, as RIT works to adapt to these student needs. Global Village, in the eyes of staff, is still a relatively new development resulting from feedback gathered from a student survey. Riverknoll has also been officially accepted as a permanent complex, with announcements that it will be updated and renovated, rather than torn down. Perkins is being furnished in the upcoming summers, as well. Further, RIT has opted to sell both Racquet Club (now The Hill) and Colony Manor, reducing the number of housing options through RIT Housing.

Several years ago, a survey was sent to students to gauge the types of amenities the student body desired in housing. Overwhelmingly, the feedback reflected a want for upscale housing options, according to Dilella. Therefore, a project that would later become Global Village was started. Currently, Global Village is still expanding, with the most recent building having opened only two years ago.

Dilella also recognizes, however, that there is a significant segment of the student body that looks for the most affordable housing options. As such, it has been decided that Riverknoll will remain a housing option for the foreseeable future. Additionally, renovations are being planned for the apartments.

Jeremy Babcock, executive director of Housing Facilities, is working with his team this summer to renovate one building in Riverknoll as a pilot for the entire complex. Through this pilot — involving apartments 516–536 — the housing facilities team will be able to better assess the total cost of renovating the entirety of Riverknoll. These renovations will include a modernized outside appearance and updated interior. The current plan is to phase these renovations in within the next several summers.

“There’s a lot of value to Riverknoll,” Babcock said. “Students love living in Riverknoll, but it’s also time to update it ... Renovating it, we don’t want to also have students incur that cost.”

“Students love living in Riverknoll, but it’s also time to update it.”

In line with this cognizance of affordability, Perkins Green will be furnished in the coming two summers. While half of all Perkins Green apartments will be furnished this summer, the other half will be furnished the summer following. For those who don’t wish to see their apartments furnished, Dilella is actively working to make accommodations, holding off on furnishing specific apartments until after the current residents either leave or state otherwise.

All of these projects are being funded mostly through the decision to sell Colony Manor and Racquet Club. Selling these properties eliminates a large number of maintenance costs for RIT and provides a sizeable upfront financial boon for the university to reinvest into existing housing infrastructure.

For those who were living in Colony Manor, Housing Operations has offered them an exclusive housing sign-up. These students have been guaranteed one of their top three choices of on-campus housing, as well as a 40 percent discount on their rent for the 2019–2020 academic year. For some, this may counter-balance the inconveniences that come with the sale of Colony Manor; for others, perhaps not.

For those who are having trouble affording RIT housing options, Dilella suggested living at the RIT Inn and Conference Center, which has discounted their 2019–2020 rates by 40 percent, or working with her office to compare off-campus rates.

“We want to do what’s best for our students,” Babcock said. “We’re investing a lot into our housing.”

If you're having trouble finding housing, Dilella recommends talking with her office.

“I would highly recommend that they [students] come in and see me or one of our assignment staff,” Dilella said. 

Despite this, students will still likely face hardships of varying degrees. If you take Kosak’s advice, it would be to “find four other friends and find an apartment off campus” if you’re in a pinch searching for affordable housing. 

Kosak explained, “Even the most affordable housing on campus is still more expensive than if you lived off campus with a group of friends.”