By Patrick McCarron
Washington and Lee University’s board of trustees approved a measure Friday that will require students to live on campus for an additional year.
The new policy grew out of administration concerns about several issues, including safety, gender relations, and the university’s sense of community. The current policy requires students to live in university housing only their first two years and sorority and fraternity houses are considered university housing.
The trustees’ decision is drawing mixed reviews from Lexington area landlords, who will see a sharp drop in the number of students renting off-campus housing when the rule goes into effect.
“I hate to see it. I think it’s a bad policy. It’s going to be hard on the rental market,” Lexington real estate agent Greg Mays said.
Mays also said he thinks the change will prevent students from becoming true members of the broader community.
“I think having students living in the community has always been a good thing. I don’t really blame anyone for this, the way things are going now, but I don’t think it’s healthy. At all,” Mays said.
Mays said the city of Lexington pushed the new housing policy by being unwelcoming to students. He said that some city laws can make it difficult for students to find housing.
Lexington Housing Coordinator Joan Neel said in most cases, only three unrelated people at most are allowed to live in a house together.
“The city of Lexington hasn’t done anything to welcome students into the community with all these laws and everything else that keep coming aimed at students,” Mays said.
But Lexington landlord John Blackburn, who owns several W&L student houses, said he welcomes the new policy.
“As far as the reduced number of students seeking off-campus rental housing, I’m not worried about my houses being vacant,” he said in an email. “I think high quality houses in good locations will continue to do well; increased competition for renters will encourage all landlords to improve their properties and keep rents at a reasonable level.”
Blackburn, who also owns two restaurants in Lexington, said the policy could benefit the city.
“My take is that this change will be a good thing, overall. I’m hoping that keeping juniors on campus will contribute to increased student foot traffic in our downtown,” he said.
For the past 2 1/2 years, a task force at W&L has been conducting research, talking with students and faculty about housing. The reports revealed students’ concerns with living off campus.
“The primary driver from our standpoint was frankly community, and also the gender divide that we heard about from so many students,” Washington and Lee Dean of Students Sidney Evans said.
Sophomore Raymond Monasterski said the gender divide comes from the prevalence of Greek organizations.
“You have sorority row on one side of campus and all of the other fraternities on the other side,” said Monasterski. “So it’s kind of hard to interact with the other gender if the only time you see them is maybe for 55 minutes in a class.”
Junior Marc Wonders said he thinks a lot of students will be unhappy with the policy.
“People like to live off campus. It gives them a degree of freedom that everyone wants in college, and they’re not going to be able to achieve that if they’re living in a dorm. When I came to college, I didn’t want to live in a dorm; I always wanted to live in my own place,” he said.
Board of Trustees Secretary James Farrar said the December car accident that resulted in the death of a W&L student did not influence the board’s approval of the new housing policy. But safety was part of the decision.
“We would rather not have students driving four to five miles out in the county to a house that’s not in very good shape,” Farrar said. “These things scare us, and we worry about this.”
The 34-member board of trustees met for three days last week and approved the new housing policy on Friday. The vote was unanimous, according to a university press release.
The policy will not go into effect until the 2016-2017 academic year, at the earliest.
The new housing will be apartment-style, and each unit will have a kitchen, living area, and single bedrooms. The task force also recommended food services and a pub. The housing will be built on the back portion of W&L’s campus, but the exact location is uncertain. The university is still seeking input from students about location and amenities.
Mays said he accepts the new housing policy, even if he isn’t happy about it.
“I’m not surprised. Washington and Lee has been building their own campus community for years.,” he said. “All the things that students need to leave campus for, pretty much you can find on campus now.”