Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College, Johnson and Wales University, Rhode Island College, and Roger Williams University – all of these schools fall within a 12-mile radius situated in the greater Providence area. Students from all over the nation come in droves to fulfill their educational pursuits in fields such as art, writing, business, culinary arts, and science. With an average of 3,000 employees per institution, the colleges listed above produced a combined $1,710,000,000 in revenue last year. Each college boasts over one thousand new students each year. This massive industry in Providence has given rise to another industry – college student-centered real estate. Companies like The 02908 Club, Off Campus Property Rentals, Providence Living, Strive Realty, The Edge, and Found Study College Hill have all emerged in the last twenty years as real estate companies established to provide housing for college students.
Rhode Island has a housing infrastructure that is already stretched thin; flocks of college students from out-of-state only worsen the problem. Most colleges dam the rush of newcomers by requiring first and second-year students to live on campus. But this requirement may be an effort to make money. For many years, Providence College has only allowed seniors to live off-campus, and only this year let juniors escape the dorm because of a lack of on-campus space. RISD’s housing webpage says outright, “Each year we see students who regret their decision to move off campus…” and provides a list of benefits to living on campus and a much shorter list of benefits to living off campus.
On the whole, colleges want students on campus. Housing directors say that living on campus is the right choice for students academically and socially. Brown University’s website says, “Students will benefit from guidance and support from their interconnected community of peer scholars as well as several peer counselors who live in the residence halls and interact with faculty and deans to create a vibrant living and learning environment.” Despite this, most students who are able to escape the dorms to off-campus housing, do so. As adults reaching 21 years old, adulthood means renting.
According to a report titled, “Housing Supply and Homelessness in Rhode Island: Observations and Options” by the Rhode Island Foundation, almost 50% of renters and 28% of homeowners are “cost-burdened” which means they are spending more than 30% of their gross income on housing. The report cites a lack of state investment in housing, limited available land space, a shortage of construction workers, and poor communication between building companies and the state as reasons for Rhode Island’s inability to adequately address the problem.
At the same time, colleges make up a large portion of the 40% of the city of Providence that goes untaxed (compared to 24% in Boston or 17% in New Bedford, for example, according to a report last year by Channel 10 News). While a city program requires colleges to pay a fee to make up for some of that lost tax revenue, PVD Mayor Smiley wishes to raise the financial contribution from colleges and universities if they expand. There is a governmental disincentive for colleges to grow, to buy more land and build on it. While the city’s concerns are more than understandable, it is worrisome that a growing student population is met with a stifling of dorm expansion efforts.
Real estate companies that target college students exist because of a market need to house these students. While it is not right to demonize these companies, landlords who rent exclusively or almost exclusively to college students have much to answer for when it comes to how they treat their tenants. When called to answer some questions on housing policy, most companies say they will call back with more information and never do, others simply do not pick up the phone at all.
The difficulty in reaching the management of these companies is one of the main problems tenants face. Issues about maintenance, snow removal, and parking routinely go unresolved.
These companies are all too eager to contact students prior to signing the lease but are sometimes difficult to find when problems arise.
Another issue is the payment of rent. For example, a few months ago, 02908 Club tenants, who are only allowed to pay through an online third party, were threatened with a late fee when the online portal was not working. Tenants were bombarded with text messages when they were not able to pay. When 02908 became aware of the issue, it was the tenant’s responsibility to call the third party and fix the technical issue. Is it really fair to limit tenants to one form of payment – that is potentially faulty – and then penalize them when it does not work? One college-aged tenant, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “They just kept texting me telling me that I was late on my rent. I tried to respond to them but they wouldn’t pick up the phone and all the texts were automated.”
Perhaps the most pressing issue students face in the Providence area is safety. Houses are regularly broken into. Perhaps students are at times lax about security – as this is their first time living alone – but no one should be subjected to theft and violence. A house on Tyndall Avenue, a property of 02908, was broken into three times in the months of July and August. 02908 tells tenants that the police will arrive when the alarm is set off; however, all three times the alarm went off the police never came. Another notable point of this story is that the men who live in this house signed their lease in their sophomore year of college when they were just 19 years old.
These are just a few anecdotes from tenants. To get a proper grasp on the situation requires hard data from rental companies like 02908. As a college student considering renting an apartment, it is best to arm yourself with some knowledge of how the system works.
Below are some tips for students seeking off-campus housing:
Tour the house. Don’t take no for an answer on this one. If they don’t want to show you, you probably don’t want to live there. If they say you can’t do it because of the current tenants or some other reason, say you will only rent a property you can see first.
Get as much as you can in writing. For example, there may be a driveway you think you can use because it is what you have seen, but when you move in you are required to park on the street. Consider if this is something you are okay with and get a parking agreement in writing if parking is important to you.
Take pictures. Record in detail every small flaw around the apartment as soon as you move in.
Rental companies will not hesitate to fine you, even if it was not you who did the damage. Protect your security deposit by taking pictures and storing them where you can find them 9 months later.
Never underestimate your costs. Make sure you properly understand what your rent covers. Does the landlord provide gas? Electricity? Water? Sewage? Internet? With a house you may get extensive costs coming at you constantly – if the rent looks cheap it is probably because there are many different costs that they are passing along to you.
Get to know the people around you. As you did in dorm life, it is nice, and at times very helpful, to get to know the people who live next door. This is even more important when living in a house in a city. You may share a driveway with neighbors or need their help digging your car out of the snow in the morning. Good neighbors are also an asset when it comes to keeping your house and belongings safe. And if you’re the type of collegian who parties loud, it’s much better to have neighbors call your cell than call the police. •
The 02908 Club did not respond to requests for comment within two weeks.
Additional reporting by Mike Ryan.
Some opinions do not necessarily represent those of the magazine.