University Housing Crisis: Why, Who, Can You Help?

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

When the University began working out housing details for the coming academic year, they ran up against a hard truth. With 62 new requests for rental housing from faculty and staff, and only 28 units available due to departures, they faced a shortfall of 34 rental units. Where to find 34 rental housing units forced challenging and painful decisions.

The rental housing policy gives priority to those who will be joining the University and, for continuing housing assignments, gives priority to those who continue to be employed or enrolled full-time. The policy limits rental housing residence to three years. However, the University has made exceptions. “If we don’t have as many people coming in as are leaving, we let some people stay beyond the three years,” said acting Vice Chancellor Nancy Berner. With the high demand for rental housing in the coming year, the University needed to invoke the three-year regulation, no easy task. Which renters, exceeding the three-year limit, would be asked to vacate? “The policy is clear on who would get access to rental housing, but it is not at all clear on who would have to exit,” said acting Provost Scott Wilson.

A working group led by Wilson devised a scoring system to rank renters who had rented three or more years: -1 point for each year past three years; +1 for tenure-track and tenured faculty; +1 for fulltime employees; +1 for having a salary less than $60,000; +1 for having a salary less than $30,000. Wilson said giving points for being an immigrant or person of color were considered, but those criteria violated the Fair Housing Act and the University Non-Discrimination Policy. The University decided to try to accommodate 13 renters with +2 scores; 17 renters have received a 60-day notice and asked to vacate by June 30.

“This has been really hard,” Wilson said, acknowledging the heart-wrenching circumstance impacting many of those required to leave. The University will give departing renters $1,500 for moving expenses. Renters’ annual contracts show how many years they have left in rental housing. A cautionary email went out in March to all renters who had rented three years or more, and four of those renters recently purchased homes or found other rental accommodations. But, Wilson stressed, including those asked to vacate, there is still a shortfall of 30 units.

Sewanee’s long acknowledged housing shortage reached the tipping point due to a confluence of several circumstances. The two-year tenure track hiring freeze meant hiring more visiting professors who could not be expected to purchase homes; the sharp increase in housing prices has made it difficult for renters to find affordable homes to purchase; and the number of seminarians seeking rental housing increased by five.

Looking to relief, Sewanee Village Ventures, Inc., a C-Corp subsidiary of the University, expects to begin construction of five to seven moderately priced single-family homes in 2022. To help alleviate the trauma of the immediate situation, a working group began meeting May 11 to investigate potential housing solutions. The group hopes to identify rental units within the University’s control, such as a theme house and dormitory apartments, as well as rental options outside the University’s control, including domain residences with apartments, second homeowners who would consider renting, and Monteagle Assembly homeowners with rental space available.

“There is so much more demand than we had supply,” Wilson said. “This has been very challenging and remains a challenge. If people in the community can respond by making available houses or rental units that could help meet this need, that would be great.”

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