When Gail Perry arrived in Washington a few weeks ago, she expected to find a cosmopolitan, color-blind city where she could rent an apartment near her classes at the Georgetown law school. Instead, Perry said, she found high rents, landlords who don't want students and subtle racial remarks that astounded her.
Thousands of college and university students arrive in the Washington area every August, and one of their first stops is the school housing office. At most institutions these offices maintain lists of apartments and houses for rent, but do not inspect or recommend housing offered to students.
Fewer than one-quarter of all students get rooms in scarce on-campus housing, which is reserved for undergraduates at most schools.
Students who rent off-campus apartments and houses constitute a significant segment of the area's real estate market, particularly in the District of Columbia, where seven major universities are located. Figures for the amount of money students spend on rent are not available.
Nearly all of the students will encounter at least some of the problems Perry faced.
The first and biggest shock is the high rent. Newly arriving students, especially those from the South and Midwest, are "really appalled at the cost" of housing, said David H. McElveen, associate director for business affairs at George Washington University.
Students almost always want to live within walking distance of their classes. For many, especially those attending George Washington and Georgetown universities, that means paying $600 a month or more for an efficiency apartment or about $200 for a space in a "group house" with five or six other students.
When she made a budget before she left her home in Omaha, Perry allotted $365 a month for rent. But she said she now will have to add $75 or $100 to that amount and may have to live in the suburbs because apartments near her classes are "outrageously expensive." Because she is both a pet owner and a smoker, her chances of finding a roommate to share the rent are slim, Perry said.
Real estate sales agents and landlords asked her for fees ranging from $15 to $25 to cover the cost of a credit check, and one also wanted a deposit of $455, the equivalent of one month's rent, when she submitted an application. She would have gotten the $455 back if she had not been approved for the apartment, but not if she decided that she didn't want the unit. In the meantime, "he would have had the use of my money," she said.
Incensed at the request, Perry went looking elsewhere.
Perhaps most disturbing for Perry, who is black, was a feeling that race was a factor in the way landlords treated her and in the apartments she was shown.
When Perry telephoned a rental agent in response to a newspaper ad, she asked him to describe the neighborhood, hoping to find out whether it was safe, clean and middle-class, she said. The agent responded " 'It's an all-black neighborhood. Judge for yourself,' " said Perry. "That doesn't tell me anything about the neighborhood. I was interested in whether the neighborhood was middle-class, whether it was safe." She didn't go to see the apartment.
Another agent pointed her toward apartments in predominantly black areas of the city. When she told the agent her friends said Southeast Washington has a "high crime rate and shoddy housing," the agent recommended an apartment in "a good part of Southeast. I was shocked when I got there. The building wasn't clean, the neighborhood was questionable. I judged that by the amount of garbage in the streets."
When she told agents that she is a law student, "they always assume I'm going to Howard University, as though that was the only school that accepted blacks," she said.
"I felt this city would be very diverse, and after all, this is the nation's capital. I didn't expect a definite demarcation between black and white," said Perry. "People even broke it down with Rock Creek Park, blacks on one side and whites on the other. That was shocking.
"I hear the phrase 'neighborhood in transition' all the time. I've discovered that what it means is that it's a middle- or upper-class white neighborhood where blacks are moving in," Perry said.
"I'm receiving a more negative reaction here, in a city that is predominantly black, than I would in Omaha," Perry said.
Experiences like Perry's apparently are not uncommon in the Washington area. A nine-month study, funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and conducted by the Regional Fair Housing Consortium, a coalition of human rights and housing groups, showed that blacks trying to rent in the metropolitan area are likely to encounter discrimination more than half the time.
Bias is often so subtle that apartment seekers have no way of knowing they are victims, according to a spokeswoman for the group, which released the findings late last summer.
In one respect, Perry found no discrimination: "They'll charge you the same $415 for a dive in Southeast that they will charge for a dive in Northwest."
Price also was a problem for Charlie Bowers, a George Washington University freshman from Washington, Pa. He scanned the rental lists in the university housing office, saying his search has been "short and futile" so far. He was offered "a one-bedroom place with a sink" for a kitchen, near the university, for $600 a month, Bowers said. He can't afford that price without a roommate, and "I don't know anyone yet."
Danielle Polen, a first-year law student, drove to Washington from California last week, knowing Washington rents were high. She said she has found that most apartments advertised in newspapers are gone by the time she calls and that it would cost her $350 to share an efficiency near George Washington.
Vivian Sellers, who works in George Washington University's housing assistance office, said she believes that most problems are caused by misunderstandings between student tenants and building owners, but she said there have been more serious cases.
Sellers said one owner, who was also a student at the university, often turned off the heat during the winter even though the students who lived in her house were paying their rent. In another case, a foreign student "rented a room that turned out to be barely habitable, and he did not realize" that city rental statutes provided recourse for a way to get his money back in such a situation, Sellers said.
In cases like these, landlords are prohibited from advertising in student housing offices, according to representatives of several universities.
As she continued her search for a place to live, Perry found an apartment she would liked to have had, run by a landlord she believed to be unbiased. But there was one problem: He did not want to rent to a law student. He said a friend of his had had trouble with law students who refused to pay their rent and threatened to sue him, she said.
Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association, representing Washington area building owners, said he understands the landlord's reluctance.
"I would prefer not to rent to a lawyer," he said. "It's because of the way the D.C. law is written. It's heavily weighted toward the tenant, so why ask for problems?"
Other graduate students, however, "are very good tenants, I've heard. They're either working or studying all the time and cause no problems," he said. Undergraduates "can be a bit of a problem" because they are younger and most are away from home for the first time, Slatton said.
Slatton said property owners "apply the same income and credit standards" to students as to other tenants. "If a student rents and doesn't work, we require a responsible adult or a parent to cosign the lease," he said.