From roaches to residential neglect: The struggles of off-campus housing

(Photo by Lauren Patetta)

By Lauren Patetta

WASHINGTON – No one wants to reach for a pot of coffee in the morning and discover a family of cockroaches has taken up residency in it.

But that’s exactly what happened to Sasha Fernandez, an American University sophomore and resident of The Berkshire, an apartment building near campus. Fernandez and her roommate moved off-campus before the spring semester and have since been battling a cockroach invasion. Despite getting their apartment treated by a pest-control service, Fernandez said her home remains infested – to the point that she’s afraid to cook past 8 p.m., because she knows that’s when cockroaches appear.

According to data from American University, Fernandez and her roommate Rose Hutchinson are just two of the 5,066 students who live off-campus, and they’re not alone with their struggles. With costly city rental prices, nosy neighbors, rampant pests and unresponsive landlords, students face a host of issues when living off-campus.

Students are constantly moving off-campus, both by choice and by force. Some do not get access to the limited on-campus housing, and others feel pressured to find more affordable options. But the price of cheaper living arrangements is high: Students must learn how to handle unsanitary, disagreeable and even unsafe conditions, predominantly on their own.

“For young adults and students like us, who are getting our first apartments, people don’t think about how difficult it might be and that we have to figure that out alone with just roommates,” said Hutchinson.

Christopher Silva, the director of housing at American, said the school only guarantees housing for freshmen, sophomores, transfer students and study abroad returnees. Though Washington zoning laws require universities to house two-thirds of their student populations, that still leaves one-third to find new homes.

One of the most common complaints with living off-campus is the pests. According to Fernandez, The Berkshire is notorious for its number of roaches and inability to control them. Since it is not an American building, there is little the school can do to assist, and Fernandez said she has done all she can to solve the problem.

“I am so clean. I never leave any dishes in the sink, I take the garbage out all the time, I wash the floors with bleach,” she said. Yet the roaches persisted, even after Fernandez’s apartment was treated.

Berkshire leasing manager Dawn Wunderle takes the problem seriously. However, she said pests are not nearly as rampant as students claim, with only a handful of problematic apartments. According to Wunderle, The Berkshire requires pest services to treat affected apartments and detect underlying causes the moment complaints surface.

“Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the pests aren’t the issue,” Wunderle said. “The housekeeping is.” 

But there are problems outside of pests. Taylor Whittington, a former Berkshire resident, was forced to relocate after a serious gas leak occurred in her room. Though she said The Berkshire brought Washington Gas in to fix the leak, the event was incredibly stressful.

 “(Washington Gas) put a giant sign on my apartment and on my stove that said, like, ‘hazardous, do not touch,’” Whittington said. After that, she decided to move to an apartment in Friendship Heights midway through the semester – something that was hard but made her happier in the long-term.

Michelle Espinosa, the associate dean of students at American, knows these issues are not uncommon. Part of her job involves teaching students how to navigate apartment-related problems; the other part deals with handling neighbors.

“I’ve heard horror stories from students of really difficult situations involving neighbors that have gone through their garbage to get their names, that have taken pictures in their windows of their house … neighbors (that) have gone into the house when students were home,” Espinosa said.  

Espinosa also oversees landlord disputes with students, since landlords tend to ignore resident concerns. Houses that are left in disrepair can be dangerous, and landlords that don’t deal with the problem jeopardize student health.

Daniel McCahon experienced this firsthand. As an American senior, McCahon lives in a Tenleytown rental house with seven other students. Last semester, McCahon’s house had a gas leak, but the landlords didn’t believe that it existed. It took weeks of emailing unresponsive landlords to replace the heater, forcing the eight residents to either live in the cold or use the heater and risk getting sick.

“(Landlords) are busy, and also, adults have their own lives, so they’re not going to email you,” said McCahon.

With all these issues, why don’t students just stay on campus whenever possible? A large part of it, according to Espinosa, is the degree of freedom off-campus living provides.

“First (students) want to get out of the house and go to college, and then they want to get out of college and go to the neighborhood,” she said.

In Allison Brinkman’s case, she simply had no choice. As a junior at the University of Cincinnati, Brinkman came to Washington for an internship. Having no campus meant she needed to find housing alone, and she ended up in McCahon’s house. Overall though, she has enjoyed the experience.

“It’s been nice to have automatic friends, in a way,” Brinkman said.

Another major factor is cost. Living in the city is undoubtedly expensive, but McCahon, Hutchinson and Fernandez were all able to find cheaper housing away from campus.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by American, the average cost of off-campus living was $1,217 per month. Comparatively, the average cost of on-campus housing is about $1,423 monthly, though the prices vary depending on the residence hall. Living alone in American’s Nebraska Hall can cost $1,716 monthly, but living with a roommate in Hughes Hall only costs about $1,374 monthly.

Aminta Zea moved into an apartment in Woodley Park at the beginning of the school year, and although she has loved the experience, cost was a major factor when finding somewhere to live.

“I really wanted it to be affordable,” she said. “I was so concerned as to how expensive D.C. rent actually is.”            

The most important thing students can do to mitigate problems is to know their rights, according to Espinosa. That’s why her office helps educate students on living off campus and directs them to places like Washington’s Office of the Tenant Advocate for professional assistance.

“Off-campus housing really forces you to understand what rights you have living in a home,” McCahon said.

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