Columns, Opinions

Douglas ’20: We Don’t Need Another Dorm

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Last week, the University announced that it would tear down several buildings, including the original Bagel Gourmet and East Side Mini Mart, and put a new dorm intended for upperclassmen in its place.  The University hopes the dorm will alleviate the housing burden facing the East Side and strengthen the sense of community for upperclassmen.

An alternate version of the announcement could have read, “University to build more overpriced housing while hurting local community.” The new housing plan is based upon fundamentally misguided principles that will hurt students financially while undermining the character of the local neighborhood, as well as relocating some of its most beloved local establishments.

The University cited student demand as one of the principal drivers behind its decision to construct a dorm between Charlesfield and Power Street. Eric Estes, vice president for campus life, said that students have specifically asked for accessible housing with more community space and kitchens. Each of these goals is admirable, but a 375-bed residence is not the best way to tackle any of them. The University can and should make more housing options accessible —  modifying existing dorms and off-campus houses owned by the University would better meet the existing need without incurring the cost associated with building an entirely new dorm. More community spaces are a constant demand from students —  repurposing one of the existing historic homes owned by the University as student space would be better than building a massive new complex. More kitchen space would indeed let students cook healthier, cheaper meals on their own — letting more juniors off campus would give them access to fridges and stoves at a cheaper price to students.

Moreover, the plan intends to foster a stronger sense of community for upperclassmen. A new dorm is not the way to accomplish this. By junior year, most students have already found a place within Brown’s social ecosystem, having settled into clubs, friend groups and local organizations. Upperclassmen do not mingle in their dorms as often as they did in their first two years and instead choose to do so in other social venues. On-campus residences don’t necessarily bond students closer together, so building a new dorm does not necessarily foster more community. Instead, Brown could pay for a round of drinks for the senior class at the Graduate Center Bar. They could make senior week activities free for everyone. They could host more free dances for juniors. Hell, if they held a social event for both classes every month for two decades, it could STILL be cheaper than building a new dorm.

The plan for the new dorm does not merely address students’ needs poorly — it actually hurts them in the long run. The entire construction process, from knocking down the existing buildings to erecting the new one, will cost tens of millions of dollars, further straining the University’s budget and thus likely increasing student tuition. Furthermore, students will likely pay more for housing in the new residence hall than they would for off-campus housing, considering that on-campus housing costs almost $1,050 per month. Off-campus houses are typically significantly cheaper than the University’s options, even when summer subletters fall through. The cost of construction will likely put even more financial pressure on students that already pay the University’s highest-ever tuition; moreover, both this tuition and room and board will almost certainly increase to new heights by the time the scheduled construction process is completed before fall 2022.

It is not difficult to see how the construction of the new dorm, built alongside the 162-bed Wellness Center and Residence Hall set to open in 2021, could be used to restrict off-campus permission. Brown’s current policy allows a limited number of juniors and all seniors to live off campus, in part due to the limited capacity of current dorms. If the University constructs enough housing, it could potentially alter its policy to require all juniors to stay on campus in the future, as well as a limited number of seniors. Such a move would cause even more financial harm to students who would save money by choosing significantly cheaper off-campus housing.

Beyond its effect on Brown’s population, the construction of the new building will potentially harm the local community more than it will help it. The current proposed site sits directly adjacent to a largely residential neighborhood, and the building will be a stark architectural contrast to the nearby homes. Though Brown promises to work with the current tenants of the occupied building at the site to help them relocate — which include PieZoni’s, Bagel Gourmet, East Side Market and the Providence Police — any new residents in the building would almost certainly have to pay a significantly higher rent than the current rate because of the newer facilities that will be offered. It is likely that only national chains could afford to pay this new rent; thus by gentrifying the neighborhood, Brown is undermining local store owners and may be ushering in even more large corporations to Providence’s East Side.

The University also hopes to alleviate rising rent prices in the surrounding community to make neighborhood housing more affordable for locals. In reality, it is unlikely that decreasing undergraduate renters would bring in more locals; instead, graduate students would be more likely replacements, because graduate students represent a growing population at Brown and one that the University intends to increase in the coming years. Community members should voice these concerns at Brown’s public meetings on the construction, which are set to be held on March 2 5:30-6:30 pm and March 3 8:30-9:30 am at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

So no, members of the Corporation, we don’t need another dorm. We don’t need fancy new lounges, more Twin XL beds or more awkward run-ins with freshman year hookups. We need cheaper tuition. We need vibrant local businesses, not more Starbucks, Chipotles and By Chloes. We need more faculty members in understaffed departments. Let’s work on those problems first.

Jonathan Douglas ’20 proudly lives off campus and encourages other students to do so. He can be reached at jonathan_douglas@brown.edu or by mail at an undisclosed off-campus location.

2 Comments

  1. So long as (1) Brown charges exorbitantly for housing, or (2) only permits seniors to live off-campus, Brown will continue to hurt local housing prices. They will continue to do these things because it is astoundingly profitable.

    In 2016, Brown earned $30/ft² of revenue in rent from students—twice the revenue/ft² of private landlords on College Hill. Brown’s costs are also drastically less than private landlords: they pay no property tax on their land, no income tax on their residential revenue, and their upkeep expenses benefit from economies of scale.

    Having endured three years of extortion for subpar accommodation, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that nearly all Brown’s seniors seek off-campus housing. Unfortunately, this is where Brown’s housing policies hurt the local community. Local landlords don’t need to compete with themselves for these students, they merely need to compete with Brown, and Brown sets a VERY high ceiling for viable rents. Look no further than 257 Thayer for an example. This “luxury” housing can be a better value than Brown’s dorms.

    If Brown cares about the local housing market, it must do at least one of the following things:
    • Reduce rents significantly.
    • End senior off-campus permission.
    • Grant unconditional off-campus permission to all classes.

    If Brown reduces rents, it’ll lessen the market influence of the annual influx of disgruntled seniors fed up with being fleeced by ResLife. With an extreme reduction, Brown COULD use it’s privileged position and act as a loss leader.

    If Brown ends senior off-campus permission, it’ll entirely eliminate the shock of the annual influx of disgruntled seniors into the private market. (But this won’t, of course, eliminate disgruntled seniors.)

    If Brown grants unconditional off-campus permission to all classes, it’ll need to compete with the private market to survive. Brown would actually need to deliver value commensurate with its cost.

    Ultimately, I expect Brown will only deepen its reliance on ResLife as a revenue center. This leaves ending senior off-campus permission as its only tool to reduce its damage to the local housing market. Undoubtedly, they’ll spin this as “reducing housing insecurity” and as an act of benevolence to the East Side. It *will* achieve both of those goals, but at the expense of Brown’s own students.

    • You also have to remember Brown (and Penn) are the only Ivies that do not guarantee on campus housing for all undergrads all four years. This can affect where students choose to go to school, especially students that live far away. Someone form California may not want to go to a school that does not guarantee housing Also on campus housing can be covered in financial aid, financial aid packages, loans, grants, where private housing is not. Brown must compete with its Ivy peers to offer similar facilities.

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