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Grad students struggle with off-campus housing

Students call for University-subsidized housing due to high rent, poor conditions, uncooperative landlords lead

The ceiling leaks. In some areas, the floor is caving in. The house was not cleaned before Erica Meszaros GS moved in with her spouse, and her landlord ignores requests for maintenance and repairs. “I’ve been renting for a decade now — a number of different apartments in a number of different states — and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Meszaros said.

Housing problems like these are not uncommon, according to multiple graduate students who spoke to The Herald. Many students’ basements are damp and moldy. Decades-old appliances and heating systems fail to meet their needs. Unsecured entryways make their houses easy targets for break-ins. And, in many cases, uncooperative landlords refuse to pay to keep their properties livable for renters.

These are just a few of the challenges graduate students face while living off campus, said Sophie Brunau GS, chair of international advocacy on the Graduate Student Council. On top of these conditions, rent in Providence is high, Brunau said, and viable options for many students are few and far between.

Some students — especially international students — face abuse from their landlords, said Shayna Kessel, associate dean of master’s education and interim associate dean for international graduate students. “We have landlords threatening to deport international students for making a complaint about water coming through a ceiling,” Kessel said. “If students weren’t international, (landlords) couldn’t make these kind of threats. They couldn’t say and write — and they will often put this in writing — really racist and abusive language.”

Even though visas protect international students from deportation, the threat remains alarming, Brunau said. “I’ve met people whose landlords threatened their visa status,” she added. “What do you do? You’re a PhD student. You have to teach. This is your first year in another country. You’re here for six years, you’re hoping. It’s your whole career and life on the balance, and you really don’t have the time to deal with this.”

Though Brunau, an international student from France, has not faced threats to her visa status, she has dealt with a number of prejudiced landlords. “One landlord made me really uncomfortable about being international,” she said. “He just picked up on my nationality when I sent him my details, and he went on a whole racist rant about French politics and immigration in France.” Students of color may experience even more offensive interactions with landlords, Brunau added.

Not all housing options are unsatisfactory, however. Sayan Samanta GS, a PhD student from India, has lived in the same place since he first came to Providence three years ago. He has faced few problems with his house, and his landlord has always been highly accommodating and responsive to requests for repairs. “I turned out to be really lucky,” Samanta said. “But generally, houses in Providence suck.”

Though Samanta arranged his housing with little difficulty, the process of finding housing remains daunting for most graduate students, he said. “Imagine the situation — especially for international students — you’re coming from so many miles away and you have nobody around. It’s a completely new place. You would be anxious.”

Since most graduate students don’t live near Providence before coming to the University, they rely on online sources to find housing, Kessel said. The University posts listings of some off-campus housing options on its auxiliary housing website, but the list is short, the prices are high and some of the landlords are abusive, Brunau said. As a result, most students find housing through other sources like Craigslist, Facebook and graduate student message boards, Kessel added.

Meszaros estimated that she had conversations with over 20 landlords while searching for housing options this past summer. Coming to Providence with a spouse and three cats, few listings met her needs. Further, most landlords refused to rent apartments to her without meeting in person. “I couldn’t pay to come out here and see an apartment, so what initially seems like a number of options gets limited pretty quickly,” she said.

While good housing options — like Samanta’s — are available online, finding housing on sites like Craigslist can be risky for students who cannot easily visit their apartment before moving to Providence, Samanta said. “Finding a place is easy,” he said. “Trusting the place that you’ve found — that’s the tricky part.”

This past summer, Sophie Don GS fell victim to a housing scam while arranging to rent an apartment posted on Craigslist. The listing matched a legitimate apartment complex on Angell Street, she said, and she maintained contact with an individual posing as a landlord for over two months. But Don discovered she had not been paying rent to the building’s landlord when she tried to visit the apartment in July. “I got there and nobody showed up,” she said. “It was a very expensive learning experience.”

Though she said the University cannot be expected to vet landlords for students, Don feels that graduate students could use more support in finding housing. “There are so many people who are coming here temporarily to do their degree and then heading out of Providence to go back into the workforce,” Don said. “It’s challenging to find a place that isn’t looking to take advantage of folks that are just moving for a couple years.”

In light of these issues with off-campus housing, many graduate students have called on the University to provide them with apartment-style housing options. “There is a real need for more on-campus housing,” Kessel said.

Exploring the possibility for graduate student housing is one of the GSC’s top priorities this year, and the Graduate School has been receptive to the idea, Brunau said. Housing provided by the University would be safer, more affordable and better maintained than many current off-campus options, she explained. In addition, the need to compete with University-subsidized housing options would give landlords a greater incentive to keep their properties up-to-date, she added.

Meszaros and Don agreed that University-subsidized apartments would alleviate much of the stress associated with finding housing. Even Samanta, who has no complaints about his current living situation, said he would prefer to live in housing provided by the University if given the option.

GSC hopes to receive more information about the University’s plans to address the issue of graduate student housing by the end of next semester, Brunau said. But she acknowledged that University-subsidized housing options are an expensive and distant goal. In the meantime, many graduate students will continue to encounter the same problems with housing that they currently face.

“If you’ve got a stipend, if you’ve got a teaching assistantship from the school, then your job is to be a student. Your job is to take your studies seriously,” Meszaros said. “If you are trying to deep clean your apartment and fix the floor and stop the ceiling from leaking, it eats into that. If you’re worried about where you’re going to be sleeping at night, if you’re worried about where you live and whether (the house is) going to stay standing, that worry eats into time that should be better spent reading and thinking and writing.”


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