Ground-ed: UVA considers requiring second-years to live on campus

Rick Jones, a local property manager, believes it’s a myth that there’s pressure for students to sign leases early. (Photo: Eze Amos) Rick Jones, a local property manager, believes it’s a myth that there’s pressure for students to sign leases early. (Photo: Eze Amos)

Every college student knows it’s coming. Do it right, and you’re securing an enjoyable experience for two semesters of your college career. Mess it up, and you may be looking at a 12-month sentence of living with that guy who never learned how to do the dishes.

Signing that first lease, even if it’s only to rent a shoebox apartment a few blocks away from campus, is a momentous decision. It’s one most UVA students start fretting about not long after they arrive at the university, hoping to secure a spot off Grounds for their second year. But now, as part of President Jim Ryan’s 2030 Strategic Plan, the Board of Visitors is considering a proposal to require students to live on Grounds for their first two years. It’s already getting some pushback.

The goal would be to alleviate the pressure that students—first-years in particular—feel to sign a lease before fully settling on a group of friends or potential roommates. It’s also part of a larger effort to create a residential community that students can stay connected with throughout their college careers.

One property manager estimates that 2,700 second-years currently choose to live off Grounds, and he believes this plan is a way of hand-holding an already over-protected generation.

Rick Jones is the vice chairman of the board for Management Services Corporation, a property management firm that owns dozens of student-housing complexes around Charlottesville, including Ash Tree Apartments and The Fred.

He wrote a letter to Ryan on June 18, calling the perceived pressure to sign a lease in September a “myth,” noting that even in June, Jones was able to find 29 units owned by his company alone that were within walking distance of the university and still available for the upcoming school year.

“I have been in the rental housing business for almost 50 years,” writes Jones, a ’70 alumnus. “I am very concerned about what I see as a great deal of misinformation about the availability of housing for students, as well as non-students…I can assure you that no one is forcing anyone to make a housing decision any earlier than they need or want to.”

While Jones admits the apartments and houses in higher demand do go quickly, he stresses that a large percentage of housing is still available well into the year. He sees this initiative as an effort by the university to coddle its students, many of whom are “just not as mature and able to handle life on their own,” he says.

Ryan has mailed a letter in response to Jones, but he hadn’t received it at press time.

Rising third-year Emily Hamilton, who moved off Grounds for her second year, says there’s a “social pressure” for students to finalize their living arrangements early so that they’re not left on the outside of a group of people trying to live together. The longer first-years wait to discuss with fellow classmates where they want to live and who they want to live with, the less likely they believe their chances are of securing a favorable housing situation.

“I think it’s more listening to what your peers are doing than feeling pressured to get on it before other things run out,” Hamilton says. “It’s created by the students and I know that you can find housing later in the year, like May or June for the next year.”

Hamilton also thinks most students would oppose being required to live on Grounds their second year.

Yet a residual benefit could be an increase in the availability of affordable housing. Michael Payne, one of the Democratic candidates for City Council, is a vocal proponent of taking an active approach to solving the local affordable housing crisis. He believes UVA’s decision would be a step in the right direction to opening up more opportunities for low-income residents to secure homes.

“You have a dynamic where a lot of students who are living off Grounds are purchasing homes and using them as rental properties that otherwise would be properties rented by residents of the Charlottesville community,” Payne says. “You just see the available housing stock restricted because it’s taken up by students.”

There are still several kinks to be ironed out before the university takes any sort of action. Jones notes that he’s open to starting a dialogue with UVA to work out an alternative solution. The Board of Visitors won’t cast any votes on the proposal until August at the earliest.