Education

With Dartmouth out of dorm space, students spill into cramped housing market

Dartmouth College
Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College. Photo by Geoff Hansen/Valley News

This article by John Lippman was published July 28 in the Valley News.

HANOVER — Earlier this month, a Dartmouth College student put out an urgent plea to fellow students on the social app GroupMe: “Any fall sublets still available? Preferably in Hanover.”

He elicited a blizzard of responses, although perhaps not the answer he was hoping.

“I am keenly looking for a spot too,” replied one student.

“Same,” wrote a second. 

“Me too!” echoed a third — which was quickly followed by multiple “same here” and “me too!” responses.

“I’ve emailed every landlord I could find in town lol everything is full,” finally lamented another student.

Dartmouth’s disclosure that a surge in undergraduate students wanting to live on campus this fall had forced the college to place 128 students on a “waitlist” for dormitory space — the list was down to 93 students this week — and sent scores of them looking for off-campus rental housing at a time when the vacancy rate for apartments in the Upper Valley is close to zero.

Finding a place to live is frustrating for many students, especially those looking to live on or near campus after the pandemic squeezed them off campus to study remotely. Now that Dartmouth will be fully opened again, they want to be back at the center of the action.

“I’ve been posting on Dartmouth forums and emailing landlords, and they’ve all gotten back to me saying they have nothing,” said Lukas Hoffman, a rising junior from Chicago studying computer science and Japanese.

Hoffman, 20, who spent last spring renting a group house with other classmates in Bridgewater Corners, said if he can’t find a place by the time classes begin, he will take the quarter off. But Hoffman said he needs to be near campus because all his classes and activities — he’s on the club water polo team — are in-person again.

“I wanted to take the winter quarter off because we do tournaments in the fall,” he said. When he first was placed on the waitlist, it was “disappointing,” he said, but the feeling has since escalated to a “sense of impending dread” as he still can’t find a place to live.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the Upper Valley contended with a longstanding housing shortage, as demand for rental units far exceeds supply. Yet the current dearth of apartments is different from the past, according to real estate professionals.

“This isn’t new, but this is the worst I’ve seen it,” said Carol Robert, a veteran Hanover real estate agent and owner of Housing Solutions Real Estate. Robert’s associate, Hannah Holbrook, who specializes in rentals, described the Hanover market as “zero availability” for students.

With rental apartments now approaching $2,000 per month in Hanover for a one-bedroom unit, Holbrook said she’s seeing Dartmouth graduate students — the majority of whom live off-campus — willing to go as far as Fairlee or Claremont to find a place to live “because of the price point.”

On Thursday, the Housing Solutions website listed only 30 rentals available — a number that Holbrook termed “minuscule” — ranging in price from a low of $750 per month for a “furnished bedroom” in a two-bedroom condo on Wolf Road in Lebanon up to $5,000 for a three-bed, two-bath “lakefront” house in Enfield.

Only six of the 30 listings were for below $1,000 per month.

On the Dartlist website on Wednesday, a frequent Craigslist-like resource for students to find apartments, posts by students seeking places to live were running more than double the number of posts advertising places available to rent.

Dartmouth officials say accommodating all students who want to live on campus is always a challenge, but the situation has been especially acute this year because foreign study programs, which typically soak up a portion of the student body, were suspended during the pandemic, resulting in more requests for dorm rooms.

In addition, after being away from campus for more than a year, many students who might have opted in previous years to live off-campus are looking to return.

The college says that, despite complaints expressed by students on social media that the Dartmouth administration has left them stranded, says it is doing what it can to help.

That includes offering a $5,000 payment to students as an inducement to take themselves off the “waitlist,” an offer that was taken up by 122 students. The college also squeezed more “beds” onto campus by turning “large doubles” into triples, converting “common areas into bedrooms” and “reallocating” an existing building into dorm space, which it says collectively reduced the bed-to-student gap by 244 beds.

The bottom line is that this fall there will be 3,350 beds in campus facilities (excluding fraternity houses) compared to 3,262 beds prior, Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson said.

“We’re continuing to look at other facilities we can tap into,” Anderson said via email. “Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that we will find housing for students still on the waitlist.”

As the housing market becomes tighter, Dartmouth students are having to go farther out for a place to live.

Loren Wehmeyer, owner of Upper Valley Apartments in Hartland, manages 300 units from Charlestown, N.H., to Ryegate, Vt., and said that about 10% of his tenants are Dartmouth graduate students. He said he receives about 60 inquiries each time he lists a rental, which he culls to 15 applicants.

But even some seemingly strong Dartmouth applicants get turned away, he said.

“We declined a Dartmouth medical student for a unit in Claremont the other day. I know. It’s crazy,” Wehmeyer, explaining the medical student nonetheless “wasn’t the most qualified of the applicants.”

That’s not necessarily surprising, explained Hanover rental specialist Holbrook, given that landlords are skittish about renting to tenants who do not have reliable, steady income.

“Students are competing with working professionals in the area who have credit histories,” she said, noting that having parents co-sign a lease is just an extra step of aggravation inhibiting the rental process.

Jolin Kish, a Hanover developer and real estate investor whose property management firm oversees about 600 leases in Hanover and Lebanon, said her tenants before the pandemic were typically divided about one-third undergraduate, one-third graduate students and one-third workers.

Now, fully 50% of her tenants are undergraduate students and 40% are graduate students, she said.

Kish, an alumna of both Dartmouth College and the Thayer School of Engineering, said the college’s dorm assignment process frequently puts students in a bind.

“I have often wondered why housing assignments are made so late in the local rental cycle,” Kish said via email. “For as long as I can remember, the Dartmouth housing dorm lottery is in May.

“But if you want off-campus housing walkable to campus, you really need to sign a lease before Thanksgiving for the following September. So students have to guess or gamble as to whether or not they will get something in May, because if they don’t, by that time, it’s too late to have much housing to choose from off campus,” she said.

Manuel Patino — a first-generation college student and rising senior from Boston majoring in neuroscience and Hispanic studies who hopes to attend medical school — said he was “frantic” for two weeks after he learned he had been placed on the waitlist.

“I was checking Dartlist twice a day and emailing every adult I knew in the Upper Valley,” Patino said, and last week signed a lease for a room in a house off East Wheelock Street, only 1½ miles from campus. Since he doesn’t have a car, Patino said he needed to be as close to campus as possible.

He said he’s paying about $1,000 per month for the room, which includes “utilities, Wi-Fi and parking.”

“I was really looking forward to living on campus to make the most of my last year,” Patino said. “This is not what I imagined at all.”

Still, with weeks to go before classes begin, Patino realizes he’s better off than many.

“I got pretty lucky,” he said.

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