As the fall semester comes to a close, many sophomores and juniors are now scrambling to navigate through one of the greatest mazes of the undergraduate experience: the challenge of finding off-campus housing. Given the sheer number of housing options available on College Hill, you would think that the process would be low on drama. Think again.
I just signed my lease for the next academic year, so I can attest to how flawed the process is. It’s archaic, fragmented and unnecessarily complex, leaving many students feeling like cast-off pieces of driftwood in a sea of unenviable housing options. I may have somehow found a suitable place to live, but the entire search was emotionally draining and laughably dependent on luck.
While there is an enormous number of sublets near campus, the reality is that many are unrenovated, overpriced or simply don’t live up to their descriptions. Many of the houses I visited looked a few decades older and several hundred square feet smaller than their pictures. And that’s too many, especially when most of them came with a heftier price tag than they warranted.
The largest issue with the current off-campus housing system is that there is no formal or centralized resource to use when searching for houses. Though Brown is under no obligation to provide these resources for students living off campus, it could still help students as they search for appropriate leases — perhaps for the first time in their lives. But the only Brown system in place is a website for auxiliary housing that belongs in the last century. Besides unregulated options like Craigslist or Zillow, there is no well-maintained central space to clearly see prices and pictures, forcing students to take time to investigate housing options. This is especially inconvenient for those who might be abroad in the fall and puts more pressure on students who are coordinating with large groups. The way the current system works is a prime example of a market failure with asymmetric information skewed in favor of the monopolistic landlords.
Brown does provide some guidelines and advice for students applying to live off campus, but these instructions are only offered during the off-campus permission application in October. That is well after the housing search begins; by October, many students have locked down leases, and most prime apartments may already be taken. In addition, though the web presentation covers safety concerns and protocols like rental insurance, it fails to walk students through the most variable and nerve-wracking part of the process: the search itself.
Even more frustrating is the smokescreen surrounding pricing and fees. I suppose it’s expected — though not ideal — that landlords will try and conceal the costs of indirect fees like utilities and parking. The more egregious and student-specific issue is that Brown doesn’t publicize its non-resident fee ($780 this academic year), leaving students to miscalculate the amount they’re really paying. When I first decided to live off-campus, a significant motivation was the potential to save on living expenses, but the non-resident fee adds yet another hurdle to doing so.
Given the limited information and resources provided, I found myself relying on upperclassmen to advise my housemates and me through the process. They ultimately helped me find my current lease, but I was unnerved by all the different information I received from various sources. I was simultaneously told that I would never find a landlord who took care of utilities, that I would be besieged by rats and cockroaches within my first week off campus and that I would need to visit a realtor to successfully find anything on College Hill. Needless to say, none of these prophecies were accurate. If I had just been given more information by a single reliable source at the outset, I could have avoided much of the fear-mongering and potentially found a lease sooner.
With the growing number of students looking to live off campus each year, it is time for Brown to address the information gap surrounding the rental search. I’m not arguing that the University needs to hold our hands through the whole process — after all, the main draw of living off campus is the independence and sense of freedom from the institution. But at the same time, the Office of Residential Life should provide more transparent information — particularly about the fees — that helps rather than hinders rising juniors and seniors. It should consider streamlining and developing its website to provide this information upfront and provide more resources in the late spring and early fall. A central list of sublets near campus would also be immeasurably useful.
For many of us, off-campus housing is our first taste of real-world adulthood — or at least the quasi-independent twilight zone we will navigate as upperclassmen. Signing our first lease should feel exciting and momentous, not like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded.