The school enrolled more than 2,200 first-time freshmen last fall, an uptick that could be accommodated when students were learning remotely. But now, as the campus plans for another big freshman class, it is also bracing for a shortage of housing, officials acknowledged.
Other factors are also adding pressure to the school — including a larger-than-normal number of upperclassmen who want to live on campus, higher retention rates and safety measures that will restrict campus housing to two students per room — creating a perfect storm.
“Everyone has just been scrambling,” said Yasmine Grier, a rising junior who had trouble finding fall housing. “The struggle has been pretty real.”
Many universities are planning to welcome a record number of first-year students to their campuses in the fall, thanks in part to an incoming cohort anxious for normalcy and an atypical admissions cycle in which hundreds of colleges dropped their standardized testing requirements.
At Howard, first- and second-year students are given priority in campus housing, leaving many juniors and seniors scouring for accommodations in an increasingly expensive city. Students in recent weeks have resurrected the Twitter hashtag, #HomelessatHoward — used in the past to bring attention to deteriorating facilities and an overall shortage of housing — to share their struggles securing housing for the upcoming semester.
Jomi Ward, a rising junior, said the stories she saw online reminded her of her freshman year, when she arrived on campus and found her residence hall had been overbooked.
“I don’t want other people to go through what I went through,” said Ward, who is studying finance. This year, she said her parents helped her find a basement apartment near campus. But she said other students do not have the same support.
Ward created a public group chat that has amassed 250 members, mostly upperclassmen looking for housing, she said. Students have banded together to share resources and pass on listings. Some Howard alumni have opened their homes to current students. Ward has gone as far as to provide one-on-one coaching for students in desperate need of affordable housing.
“People just don’t have the money, that’s the biggest concern,” Ward said, adding that many of her peers do not have credit or are dealing with financial crises triggered by the pandemic. “They’re trying to pinch pennies.”
But in the District, where the average price of a one-bedroom apartment exceeds $2,000, budget-friendly housing can be difficult to find.
The university is aware of the issue and posts information about off-campus housing — including listings and FAQs — on social media and its website, said Frank Tramble, a Howard spokesman. And in light of the housing shortage, Howard has secured additional beds at apartments off campus, raising the school’s housing capacity from 4,854 to more than 5,500 beds.
Grier said she has been assigned to housing that Howard secured at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Elsewhere, universities throughout the country are bracing for their own housing shortages. Officials at Dartmouth College in June warned more people than usual were seeking on-campus housing, due in part to fewer students being away from campus to study abroad or take a gap year. Students at the University of California, San Diego have complained about a dearth of campus housing following the school’s decision to restrict it to incoming first-year and transfer students.
Students tend to move off campus after their sophomore year, but the pandemic has changed that tradition, Grier said. “We left campus as freshmen and we’re coming back as juniors,” she said. Before the school’s in-person learning shut down in March 2020, students lived on campus for only seven months.
Some Howard students said the housing shortage feels particularly painful in light of recent sales of university property. Howard between 2016 and 2017 sold three former residence halls to real estate developers as a way to generate income.
The school in recent years has become more financially stable, and after modernizing all of its residence halls, the university is looking to add more housing, Tramble said.
“As we look to build and expand the campus, that has always been a part of the thought process of what we need to do to make Howard down the line a lot better,” Tramble said. “One of the hard parts of being an HBCU is when you’re under-resourced for such a long period of time, trying to catch up with your infrastructure needs is a difficult and timely thing.”
But even students with housing encounter obstacles, said Alanis McNeal, a 19-year-old junior from Seattle. In securing room and board for the fall, McNeal said she had to speak to officials in three separate offices to resolve an issue about her eligibility. McNeal is a junior because of the credits she earned in a dual-enrollment program in high school, but this fall will only be her second semester on campus.
“I think any Howard student can tell you, when you have to talk to administration it can be frustrating,” said McNeal, who is studying journalism. “The communication between different offices is not the best.”
Tramble said the university is continuing to look for ways to be more efficient and deal with students’ needs faster.
But students said the university should do more. Ward, who started the student housing group chat, said it would be helpful if the university shared advice, such as tips for negotiating a lease.
She is also working with others on fundraisers to help students pay rent. Their long-term goal is to raise $10,000 but they are working toward just $3,000 “to put a dent in people’s rent.”
As students emerge from a year spent almost entirely online, the housing situation comes as another blow, several said.
“It’s difficult to sit through because, for me, Howard is the only school I can see myself attending. So when you get told in early July and classes start in August that you have to find housing in D.C. or you can’t continue to attend school, its like ‘What, are you kidding me?’" Grier said. “I had to consider dropping out.”