Union College students face off-campus housing dilemma
SCHENECTADY As early as their sophomore year, some Union College students are being pressured by local landlords to sign contracts for senior year apartments.
The pressure intensifies in their junior year, as students race to snatch up apartments close to the college in hopes that they’ll win the Union housing lottery and get permission to move off campus as seniors.
That bet backfired for 88 students this year.
They signed contracts and entered the lottery, but didn’t win permission to move off campus.
Some of them also said their landlords were holding them to their leases, forcing them to pay thousands of dollars for a property they can’t use.
And at least one landlord complained that he could rent his house — adjacent to Union — only to college students and would lose a year’s rent because of the lottery system.
Union student Hannah Gardella said her landlord let her out of her lease but kept her $375 deposit.
“My landlord agreed to break the lease because he felt on principal it’s not fair to make someone pay for housing when they have to pay for campus housing [too],” she said.
Gardella had no idea she might not get to move off campus, she added. “Not worried at all,” she said. “It never, ever crossed our minds.”
Last year, so few seniors applied to live off campus that juniors and even some sophomores were allowed to leave.
But this year there was a flood of applicants. The college lets 200 to 250 students live off campus annually, but 306 rising seniors applied.
There was enough housing on campus for all but 218 students, so that’s how many were allowed to leave, college spokesman Phillip Wajda said.
The rest were left holding leases they couldn’t use.
Wajda said the college tells students not to sign leases early.
“All of our housing-process literature and documentation states that students should not sign leases until they are granted a release,” he said. “It is also outlined in the student handbook and on the off-campus application form that students sign.”
“I don’t feel like we were informed,” she said. “No one has had a problem [moving off-campus senior year] the whole time I’ve been here. It was never, ever word-of-mouth, a buzz.”
She has the second-to-last lottery number. There’s no way she’ll be living off campus next year unless Union changes its rules.
“It’s like that privilege was taken from me and I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said, adding that Residential Life should have predicted this problem in advance because the class of 2015 is unusually large.
“It could be predicted,” she said. “And that should be communicated to the students.”
She added that she thought the pressures of supply and demand forced landlords and tenants to sign leases early.
Wajda said landlords have claimed a housing shortage to push students into signing leases before the lottery.
“We have no information to suggest that there is a housing shortage in this region, but we do believe this is a tactic being used to encourage students to sign leases long before they should be committing themselves to this kind of agreement,” he said.
Schenectady has a housing glut, with many more houses than people to live in them, but there is a limited number of apartments within sight of the college.
Landlords also charge students well above the market rate for Schenectady, but students often share the burden among eight or more renters who squeeze into one house.
One landlord, speaking anonymously, said the students living in his house now signed a lease in the summer of 2012 — more than a year before they moved in.
He saw no problem with the practice, saying it was common to sign student leases six to 12 months in advance.
But he also let his tenants out of their lease.
They’ll be living on campus their senior year, like almost every student at Union. And that’s the way Union wants it.
Union College is a residential school. Students can move off campus only with permission, and generally only when they’re seniors.
“Union firmly believes that living on campus is an important part of the college experience,” Wajda said. “Our staff is committed to ensuring that it continues to be a hallmark of the Union experience.”