West Chester University students protest lack of affordable housing

For 17-year-old Emily Miller, getting a college degree is a must — even if it means sleeping in her car.

“I’m really committed to graduating and I’ll do whatever I can,” said the West Chester University computer science student. “If I have to live in my car, this has to happen.”

Miller, who is the first in her family from rural Christiana, Pennsylvania, to attend college, was among about 30 protesters battling the cold Wednesday night to express concerns about what she sees as a growing crisis, affecting students – a lack of affordable and available housing.

The students marched from West Chester’s Campus to the home of the university’s president, Christopher M. Fiorentino, and crowded in front of the elegant front gate while shouting chants of “I can’t go home, I have no home.”

A Change.org petition outlines their demands: To prevent student homelessness and financial pressure from the high cost of off-campus housing, the university should build more dormitories and provide scholarships for more expensive off-campus alternatives.

The effort began this month after some students were informed by email that they were denied a place in the university’s dormitories for the fall semester 2023.

In particular, the students criticized the university’s relationship with University Student Housing, the private housing company that operates a significant portion of the school’s campus dormitories and falls under the school’s tax-exempt non-profit organization, the West Chester University Foundation.

West Chester University has around 5,200 residence halls on campus, according to a university spokesman. Just over half is owned and operated by University Student Housing and costs significantly more than the university’s own dormitories.

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For example, a place in a university-owned double room on the north campus costs students $2,897 per semester. A double room offered by University Student Housing costs almost twice as much: $5,396 per semester.

Miller was denied a place in a university apartment, she said, and her only hope lay in a long waiting list. To support her more expensive USH-owned dorm, she works three on-campus jobs while juggling her time as a volunteer firefighter.

For some students, finding alternatives has become a struggle.

Grace Zwiezyna, a junior media student whose application for university-owned housing was denied, said securing lower-cost housing is vital. Zwiezyna, who has one child and grew up not far from university, sees her classmates flocking to apply for on-campus dormitories as the cost of off-campus housing has skyrocketed.

“We see almost $1,000 a month to share a bedroom with someone,” Zwiezyna said. “I’m starting to think that’s kind of unacceptable. It’s kind of a mugging, and I think we as seniors realize we’re going into a tougher economy than we’ve ever been before.”

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in West Chester — an increasingly popular area on the outskirts of Philadelphia’s suburbs with a downtown area full of trendy restaurants and boutiques — is $1,858, according to rental website RentCafe. Only about 20% of comparable units in the district rent for under $1,500.

This was confirmed by University President Fiorentino in an interview on Wednesday That demand for on-campus living has surged this year as in-person classroom instruction has returned to pre-pandemic norms.

“Rent prices have gone up, so all of a sudden this very stable pattern that we’ve seen for many, many years shifted to us, and of course all of this happened after the pandemic,” Fiorentino said. “2019 was our last normal year.”

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Fiorentino said the university could not add additional housing immediately, citing zoning issues in areas around campus and the projected decline in enrollment over the coming decade due to changing demographics in the state.

Fiorentino said there had been an opportunity to add additional dormitories on campus, but the pandemic had prompted the university to “back down” from that plan. As a short-term solution, Fiorentino said the university could potentially upgrade its current dormitories and add more beds in rooms where zoning regulations allow.

But for current students, the housing crisis is more immediate.

Stuck between exorbitant prices for off-campus housing and limited student housing availability, Zwiezyna said some fellow students are wondering if they can even continue to visit West Chester.

Chloe Stengel, a second-year student from Abington, marched alongside protesters as she described how her job as a resident counselor – with the benefit of discounted accommodation – is the only thing that ties her to the chance to graduate.

“I grew up with nothing,” said Stengel. “My mom told me when I was in kindergarten, ‘If you want to go to college, you have to find out.’ So that’s what I did.”

An Instagram post by @wcu_housingcrisis — a student-run account documenting the protest movement — received replies from students with similar stories. Some said they had to commute from nearby hotels, tumble onto mattresses in crowded homes, or take a year off to avoid paying rent.

“I grew up in this city,” said Zwiezyna. “I have seen the housing situation here deteriorate over the years. I told myself in high school that I would never come here, and some days I honestly wish I’d listened to myself.”

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