When Northwestern upperclassmen move off campus, some face the grim realities of housing insecurity.
Serena Salgado’s full size bed stretches wall-to-wall in her bedroom. In the remaining space, there is a radiator and a small rolling desk, leaving Salgado, a fourth-year, just enough space to walk by. When she needs to get her clothes, she goes into the dining room, where her dresser lives.
According to Evanston’s municipal code, among other standards, a one-person bedroom must be at least 70 square feet. It must be “properly maintained” by the landlord, and federal law states it must have two points of exit from the building.
Salgado, co-president of Quest+, an organization that helps first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students navigate Northwestern, believes her room fits few of these criteria. In her eight-bedroom house, she thinks five may not qualify as bedrooms. One has no windows and little space to move; she sees it more as “a closet in the attic.” Because of the higher cost of more spacious and better maintained buildings, this house was one of her best options.
Many FGLI Northwestern students are struggling with insufficient or insecure housing, whether that means living far from campus or barely affording rent while struggling with utility bills and poorly maintained buildings. For some, it’s hard to justify even moving off campus.
While Salgado, who is FGLI, doesn’t see herself as housing insecure, she says many of her friends live in similar conditions. Nationwide, college students increasingly struggle with insecure housing, according to a growing body of research led by Katharine Broton, a University of Iowa professor who researches housing insecurity and homelessness among college students.
Broton’s study found that one in 10 U.S. undergraduates are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Nationally, 45 percent of college students experience some form of housing insecurity, whether that be homelessness, living on a friend’s couch or living out of a car.
Housing markets can also play a role in finding cheap off-campus housing. According to Director of Off-Campus Life Anthony Kirchmeier, some Evanston landlords might assess the market and invest in more luxury apartments than cheaper houses to cater to the socioeconomic makeup of the student body.
College-specific data from a 2017 Equality of Opportunity Project report found that the median household income of Northwestern students was $171,200, more than double the rest of the city’s median income (according to information provided to Data USA by the U.S. Census Bureau).
From Salgado’s experience, cheap off-campus housing options are getting harder to find. Erika Barrios, a first-generation fourth-year, agrees. Since her mom is a real estate agent and knows realtors in the area, she easily found a cheap apartment a five-minute walk from campus.
“I know that I am fortunate to be in the apartment I have given the connections and knowledge, which is not something I ever saw play out in my life in other ways at Northwestern,” Barrios says.
Throughout much of her college experience, Barrios, who says she’s from a middle class family, felt disadvantaged seeing students with college-educated parents excel where she struggled. For some FGLI students, a lack of knowledge about housing options when looking for a place to rent compounds that feeling.
“Students from low-income families are at a distinct disadvantage in the private marketplace for off-campus rental housing, since landlords often require that college students have parental co-signers,” Anna Reosti, research professor at the American Bar Foundation and former Northwestern postdoc wrote in an email. “Though some may be able to find landlords willing to rent to students without deep-pocketed co-signers, the business interests of private rental housing providers largely run counter to the interests of low-income students in need of decent and affordable housing.”
In second-year Nuo Chen’s experience, some landlords in Evanston require that students with only one-cosigner have an income of five times the price of the lease. In an apartment of four students paying $3,400 per month, that would mean making $17,000 a month, or $204,000 per year.
Because neither of Salgado’s parents went to college, she says they weren’t able to give her the kind of support throughout the housing search that many other students get.
“My parents graduated high school and lived with my grandma for a long time. Once they were able to afford it, they got a house,” Salgado says. “They never had the experience of, ‘I need to get a house right now and not wait a long time,’ an experience that many upperclassmen have had as they search for a place to live.”
For Salgado, the most stressful part of living off campus was finding a cheap house. She spent hours each week viewing properties and contacting landlords while most of her housemates were abroad. She had to constantly communicate to keep them in the loop as she navigated the process in-person with one other housemate. But she also had the freedom to decide which houses the group would even consider and could propose options that were affordable for her.
This searching, plus the 10 hours per week she works at her job, meant less time for her studies. Reosti says for many low-income renters, the searching process itself can be costly because of the time and financial commitments it takes to find an affordable, livable home.
That said, Northwestern offers some support for students. On January 24, Quest+ and Off-Campus Life (OCL) co-sponsored an event called “Living Off-Campus with Quest+” to help students better understand the off-campus housing process. While it was open to the public, the event was primarily intended for recipients of the QuestBridge scholarship, which connects first-generation and low-income students with elite universities.
The event’s attendees fired off questions about off-campus housing to a panel of students that included Salgado and Chen, all of whom lived off campus or were in the process of finding housing.
“Where do I find cheap furniture?” “How do I factor financial aid into off-campus living?” “How early should I sign my lease?” “Should I look for a big real estate company or a smaller realtor?”
Why even move off campus?
The last question can be one of the most difficult to answer, especially when students don’t have the familial or institutional support to navigate the process according to Robert Brown, the director of social justice education at Northwestern.
When students stay on campus, all their bills are paid in one place. They don’t have to worry as much about budgeting food and utilities or finding a liveable home.
When students live off campus, where it’s possible to spend less money on housing and food, they’re likely to receive more money from scholarship refunds that they can send home, if needed. Brown believes deciding where to send money can be a difficult dynamic for many students, especially those who were contributing to family costs while living at home.
Salgado says OCL and Northwestern do a decent job supporting students after they’ve signed the lease. But finding cheap housing and negotiating rent can require institutional knowledge that many students may not have, and OCL does not offer.
At the Quest+ event, Kirchmeier told the story of a group who found a place to live for $400 per month per person. They signed the lease. But because of an enormous heating bill resulting from poor insulation, they paid what they would have for a nicer house.
They went to OCL to talk about what to do and realized they were stuck because of the lease. So they turned off the heat. They bought electric blankets and, while they were home, didn’t leave their beds besides to go to the bathroom.
“Cheaper does not mean better,” Brown says.
"It just feels like a place where I sleep, rather than my bedroom. It's not somewhere I go to relax. It has no other function than me just laying down in the bed or standing in the inch of space between my bed and wall." - Serena Salgado
From Chen’s experience, many landlords require tenants to pay the maximum security deposit municipal law allows: 1.5 times the monthly rent. This means students need to have upwards of $1,000 ready if they want to lock down a place to live for the next year. The search process can also come with significant economic costs like application fees, which Resoti says can make paying for security deposits or other move-in expenses more difficult.
Summer housing, which most scholarships do not cover, can be another burden for low-income students. Since leases usually run for 12 months starting in September, there is often a three-month period when students have no financial aid, unless they are taking summer courses or working on a summer grant.
Some students expressed uncertainty of how they’d pay for their off-campus apartment over the summer. One solution some students find is Northwestern’s Summer Internship Grant Program (SIGP), which gives students a $3,000 stipend for the summer. But this isn’t always sufficient. A $700 rent, which is among the cheaper off-campus options, would take up 70 percent of a SIGP student’s grant, leaving just $300 per month for utilities, food and transportation.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), this leaves the students “cost burdened,” meaning more than 30 percent of their salaries goes toward rent.
“Evidence demonstrates that students who lack sufficient financial aid are more likely to work more hours or forego key resources like textbooks, affecting their ability to succeed in school,” reads a February 2015 HUD report on housing insecurity among college students. “Students without access to sufficient aid might also make decisions that hurt them in the long run, such as taking on higher interest private loans or dropping out of school.”
Though there is some on-campus support from Student Enrichment Services, among other departments, students often lack awareness of where they can go for help. Brown says the University is making continual efforts to inform students of these resources.
“For so many folks navigating housing insecurity, there can be shame about navigating that experience and sharing that story,” he says. He notes that there’s a discrepancy between having the resources available and students in need feeling comfortable enough to use them.
Growing up in Nevada, Salgado saw how the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Nevada, Reno provide subsidized apartment-style living to students. At these schools, the rent is paid to the university, and students aren’t required to be on a meal plan.
Salgado says since it’s more expensive to live on-campus, it is Northwestern’s responsibility to help FGLI students find stable off-campus housing or provide apartment-style living.
Mark D’Arienzo, the senior associate director for operations and services for Residential Services, agrees. He’s been advocating for University-owned on-campus apartments since 1985, but because of different administrative priorities (including a 10-year dorm-renovation plan), it hasn’t happened.
This system would lesson the landlord difficulties many students experience off campus while providing maintenance support from Northwestern Facilities staff, D’Arienzo says.
Plus, the same HUD report on insecure housing and higher education concluded that “students appear to be more likely to graduate if they live on campus, particularly when the on-campus experience encourages student learning and engagement.”
The framing of this conversation can also have an effect on FGLI students. Though it can be difficult to manage the pressure and anxiety housing insecurity brings, Brown believes dealing with the difficulties should also be seen as a sign of a student’s resilience.
“These students are strong, and these experiences can shape them in a good way,” he says.
For Salgado, the most upsetting part of the issue is that she feels there is no definitive solution. On-campus housing is expensive, so full-scholarship students receive less money in refunds. Off-campus housing is cheaper, but it often means facing difficulties with landlords without the resources to help. For Brown, it’s an issue the University must try to tackle.
“We’re never, as a university, going to be able to fix or heal or resolve every family’s financial situation,” Brown says. “I think that probably extends beyond the scope of an individual institution. So students are always going to be navigating those pressures, but how do we alleviate those additional costs? … We do have a responsibility to do that.”
When Salgado returns from class at night, she puts her coat and bag down in the living room. She grabs pajamas from her dresser in the dining room.
For many, a bedroom is a place to decompress and relax. For Salgado, it’s neither.
“It just feels like a place where I sleep, rather than my bedroom. It’s not somewhere I go to relax,” she says. “It has no other function than me just laying down in the bed or standing in the inch of space between my bed and my wall.”