The University of Utah is asking alumni to lease scarce living space to students, offering to match their interests and pass along $5,000 in payments each semester.
With a waiting list for campus housing that topped 3,500 students this spring and still stands at about 600, the U. said it hopes the fall pilot program will be able to place 100 students in 100 homes of alumni and others with connections to the U.
If the program goes well, the university wants to boost that to 1,000 placements the following fall, said Bethany Hardwig, director of special projects and outreach at the U.’s Office of Alumni Relations. Some hosts will offer more privacy, such as an “in-law-style suite,” but others may provide one room within a house, Hardwig said.
“We have reached out to our staff and faculty and alumni within a 25-mile radius of the University of Utah,” Hardwig said.
How will it work?
Students will pay a flat rate of $5,000 per semester for the new “Home Away from Home” program, the U. said in a statement. Incoming sophomores, juniors and seniors will fill out a survey about their interests and lifestyle.
The program is “not simply focused on meeting the need of student housing,” but also about alumni engagement and pairing students with alumni they can connect and learn from, Hardwig said.
“This went from an idea to a reality in about three weeks,” Hardwig said, so the program is still evolving. However, 85 potential hosts already have said they are interested in participating, she said.
Alumni, faculty or staff at the university can fill out a survey to be considered for the program. The university estimates that 120,000 alumni live near campus.
The cost for dormitory-style housing on campus, which is generally reserved for first-year students this fall, varies depending on the building and the type of room. A single room in one of the older halls is $3,847 for fall semester; a single room in the newer Kahlert Village is $4,659. Most students living on campus in dorms also choose meal plans that cost between $3,400 and $5,000 for the academic year.
What about safety?
“There is an extensive screening process for both our alumni hosts and the students who will participate,” Hardwig said.
The program is making plans so that if a student feels unsafe, “we can respond immediately,” Hardwig said, by working with campus resources and Salt Lake City police.
The university is working to mirror the methods that on-campus Housing and Residential Education (HRE) services use to manage crises, she said. It is trying to ensure that these students have “as much, if not more access to student resources than a student who lives on our campus,” Hardwig said, with a staff dedicated to the program.
However, the U.’s on-campus housing department has been repeatedly criticized in recent years for failing to respond quickly and effectively to safety issues.
After the murder of student Lauren McCluskey in October 2018, an audit found that the U.’s housing department failed to contact university police when staff learned about a threat to her safety from roommates. That was deemed a major misstep by investigators, who said it could have led to an early intervention.
Three months ago, state auditors said the same issues still not been fixed by the housing department. For example, a student living in a dorm reported to housing officials that a roommate had threatened them with a weapon. But campus police were not told about the threat until 24 hours later.
Also earlier this year, U. housing officials knew that the roommate of international student Zhifan Dong was concerned about Dong’s relationship with a student in the same dorm building. But similarly, those reports were never given to campus police, and police say Dong was killed by her boyfriend, Haoyu Wang, in February.
Auditors told the U. to streamline its channels for reporting crimes, better train housing staff and improve data entry for more complete records of events, and it agreed to work on those recommendations.
The U. also told auditors: “Providing students with many options for reporting crimes is crucial to a trauma-informed, victim-centric approach to campus safety, and the University of Utah will continue to provide students with as many reporting options as reasonably possible consistent with best practices.”
What else is the U. doing to increase student housing options?
The U. has more than 40,000 students, and those looking for rental housing face costs that have been surging along with the blistering housing market.
The U. has said it wants to provide housing to as many students as possible; President Taylor Randall cited increasing on-campus housing as one of his top five priorities at his inauguration in March.
Some students have been living in the University Guest House hotel on campus; with that option available again this fall plus a new deal with Westminster College to take over some of its housing, the U. is offering a total capacity of over 5,000 beds for the fall semester.
The U. announced July 1 that it will lease The Draw, a 162-bed apartment building at 2100 South and 1300 East in Sugar House, from Westminster for the next five years.
“Westminster is meeting enrollment goals; we just don’t need that space currently, said Arikka Von, a spokesperson for Westminster College. “This sublease enables Westminster to house all of our residential students on the core of our campus, where programming and services are robust, and support the student experience to the fullest.”
The U. also plans to have 1,700 new beds available in the next few years, planned at the fourth wing of Kahlert Village and University West Village in 2023; in the Impact and Prosperity Epicenter in 2024; and at the Ivory University House in 2023 — which will be privately owned and operated by the Ivory Foundation.
Courtney Tanner contributed to this report.
Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.