Verbum Ultimum: ‘It’s the Housing, Stupid’

The current housing crisis cannot be solved without both the Dartmouth administration and the town of Hanover prioritizing the long-overdue expansion of the housing supply.

by The Dartmouth Summer Editorial Board | 7/2/21 4:10am

On June 14, Dartmouth students received an email from the Office of Residential Life stating that “as expected, demand [for housing] has exceeded our capacity.” So began a student scramble to find off-campus housing for the fall. The most alarming part of this crisis was just how predictable it was — housing has been in short supply for years. The administration has ignored the need for more housing for nearly two decades, and the Town has failed to implement simple measures that would enable more students to live off campus. The solution is easy: both must immediately prioritize the construction of more housing units. 

In response to their inability to meet student need for housing, the College intends to convert doubles to triples and floor lounges to rooms, squeezing an additional 86 beds into the current supply. Additionally, the College ran an extraordinary housing lottery, in which up to 200 students received $5,000 for giving up their fall term housing. The College is at least willing to commit financial resources to housing as many students as possible given its current capacity — we commend them for doing the bare minimum. It is shameful, however, that the College’s slapdash plans were even necessary. If Dartmouth had built more campus housing over the past fifteen years, there would have been no need for a last-minute plan, especially not one that essentially bribed students to give up their housing.

The housing crisis has endured for nearly 50 years, since Dartmouth first admitted women in 1972 and created the D-Plan to accommodate an increase in student enrollment — so that no male student would have his spot taken by a woman. While today, the D-Plan is touted as a way to increase freedom and flexibility, it has become an incredible constriction on students’ academic paths. Already required to take sophomore summer on campus, students starting with the Class of 2024 will now be forced to take a fall or spring term off as well, all because the housing stock is not sufficient. Even after the lottery, 128 students were still left on the College’s waitlist and scrambling to find housing this fall — and according to the email sent to waitlisted students, this is actually a lower number than in previous years. The fact that every year over a hundred students are left in the lurch and potentially homeless is absurd and unbefitting of a school with Dartmouth’s stature or financial resources. 

Despite the hardships students go through simply to have a roof over their heads while taking classes, the College has not made constructing new dorms a priority. In June 2018, the Board of Trustees approved a plan for a new 350-bed dormitory where the Onion and several tennis courts currently stand; incredibly, the College never submitted the plan to the Town for consideration, and construction never began. Yet several other projects — the Irving Energy Institute, the Center for Engineering and Computer Science, renovations of Dartmouth Hall and nearby buildings — continued through the pandemic last year, all with price tags in the tens of millions. The College clearly has no qualms funding other construction, but building new dorms has apparently fallen to the bottom of the list. World-class campus buildings are great, but they are worthless if the College does not have the housing capacity to allow as many students as possible to take advantage of them. 

Constructing new dormitories will also give the College more “slack” to renovate older dorms. Many of the oldest dormitories continue to struggle with major problems like accessibility for wheelchair users, a lack of air conditioning during the summer months and other hazards. Constructing proper new dorms gives the College the capacity to take older dorms temporarily offline and give them much-needed renovations — and avoid repeating housing mistakes like the Choates, supposedly-temporary buildings which have now persisted for decades.

The Dartmouth administration must act, but so must the Town of Hanover. The Upper Valley has long faced a housing shortage, and the situation only worsened during the pandemic as students rented every available property within driving distance of campus. Expanding the local housing supply for students will free up properties for College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employees as well as other members of the local workforce. While a ballot initiative at the upcoming July 13 Hanover Town Meeting to allow more students per bedroom may serve as a temporary solution if it is passed, it could also lead to overcrowding in off-campus housing. 

Rezoning parts of the town to allow for more multifamily housing would grant more Dartmouth students, as well as working-class young adults, a longer-term fix. This means upzoning — doing everything possible to allow the construction of more dense housing. Areas near downtown Hanover that are currently zoned as single residence — where only single-family homes are allowed — should be rezoned as general residence, where multifamily housing is permitted. Lot coverage requirements and height limits should also be loosened to maximize use of available land, and parking requirements in neighborhoods close to the College should be loosened — students living in those locations don’t need to drive to campus. Additionally, Hanover’s landlords and developers presently have no incentive to invest in worn-down, poor quality houses because they will likely find a tenant regardless. Expanding the supply will create more competition for housing, forcing landlords to either cut rates or improve the quality of the housing on offer. 

Yet despite the benefits that more housing would provide, historically, Hanover has been intractable when faced with any change that would impact the “character” of the town. A 2015 proposal to rezone West Wheelock Street to allow for more dense housing and commercial activity was voted down at a Town Meeting by hundreds of votes, despite winning the support of the Town government. Hanover residents also undermined plans for the College to build a new indoor practice facility near Thompson Arena despite the College agreeing to restrictions on lighting, windows, open hours, and even the height of the building, ultimately delaying construction by seven years. Dorm construction plans have faced even tougher opposition. Hanover residents, many of whom claim to support progressive causes nationwide, should recognize that every time they stop the construction of additional housing, the biggest losers are low-income students and the wage-earning workforce that serves them at town businesses. Not-in-my-backyard attitudes must end.

The D-Plan, the lottery, the conversion of lounges to dorm rooms and increased crowding into off-campus housing are not solutions. What Dartmouth and Hanover need to do to end this endless crisis is clear: build more housing.

The summer editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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