A new University construction loan initiative to ease a housing shortage for faculty and staff comes after decades of growing concerns about a shortage of affordable housing and rental options on the Mountain. The severity of the issue resurfaced among the greater Sewanee community after the University evicted 17 employees from rental housing at the end of the 2021-22 academic year. While there are no immediate solutions, new initiatives have been created, including development of five to eight homes exclusively for sale to employees and the construction loan program announced October 5 in an email sent to faculty. The loan program would fund short-term interest-free loans for employees to help pay for the cost of building homes on the Domain.
A recent Urban Land Institute’s report on Sewanee real estate potential estimated that only about 40 percent of all University employees can afford to pay for what is currently the average list price of a home within the Domain. The university housing crisis is a complex issue that has gone unaddressed for years. Many homes on campus have been purchased by alumni and others who use them as second or third homes, and that trend escalated during the pandemic. These non-employee buyers have steadily driven up the prices of the few homes that do go on the market, and the pattern of spiking home prices has escalated in recent years. Meanwhile, housing needs for new professors, many of whom want to live in the community where they work, are never-ending, and the cycle has escalated in the last decade.
With prices spiking beyond the means of faculty and staff, even more homes have been sold to non-employees – particularly alums eager to enjoy a place on the Mountain. “The logical extension of this trend as faculty members age is that the housing stock owned by employees will dwindle. This will require a concerted effort to develop more housing targeted to employees…” says the ULI report released by the University in August. The ULI report summarized their observations by stating: “The analysis shows the challenge of creating a mechanism that protects the affordability of the existing stock while creating new inventory that can match affordability with compensation structure.”
A letter from professors and alumni sent to the board of regents and trustees in June details what most recently drew attention to the chronic housing crisis: “Faculty and staff recently received short notice to prepare for eviction next month from University-owned rental housing. With inadequate housing stock on the Domain, seventeen soon-to-be evicted rental-housing residents and incoming faculty and staff have been forced to search for housing as far away as Murfreesboro and Chattanooga.” The notice was given to employees who had rented housing for more than three years, as per the University rental housing policy.
Kelly Malone, professor of English, who has taught at Sewanee for 20 years, reflected on this event: “They were evicted and then put on a committee to study this problem, which is a very Sewanee way of doing things.” She continued, “The sense of betrayal is intense, because the people who were evicted are people who have been here for years now, and invested heavily in Sewanee. And to feel like that investment is rewarded with disregard…”
A primary critique of the administration throughout this predicament, as stated in the June letter to University regents and trustees, is that they have refrained from “leveraging the institution’s ownership and governance of the Domain to address the housing problem.” Converting University-owned rental housing into homes for sale to private buyers indicated to many faculty and community members that the University had a clear misplacement of loyalties. The faculty letter said measures like these degrade faculty morale, which impacts many facets of Sewanee life. In her interview with The Purple, Malone echoed this sentiment.
The loss of close relationships between students and faculty, from when many faculty lived centrally on campus, is a notable consequence of this degradation. These bonds are why many students elect to attend a small liberal arts college in the first place. Now, many faculty commute one to two hours, and are on campus only a few days a week. “There are rituals of Sewanee life that no longer exist. Faculty were required to have students over to their houses, and their new advisees— it was a really awkward dinner party,” Malone said. “But it was the sort of thing 10 years after the fact, students tended to remember it fondly.”
Malone continues, “This year for family weekend we were not asked to be in our offices to meet parents, which we had always done before, so that’s gone.”
“We are a weird mashup of these neolibral aspirations and also a fiefdom,” Malone also observes. In events of conflicting incentives such as a profitable housing market versus providing quality housing for faculty, the true values of the University are brought to the fore. In recent months, it seems as if the administration is pivoting towards the needs of University employees as opposed to monetary priorities. In a July email sent to faculty, four changes to housing were announced to be underway, with three in service of faculty living on the Domain.
Sewanee Village Ventures is set to build five to eight new single-family homes for sale exclusively to employees. Earlier this year, the administration also announced plans to help employees obtain a loan to supplement the down payment for purchasing an existing home on the Domain. (The email reads: “University employees may now obtain a matching loan from the University to supplement the down payment on a home loan by contributing as little as 5% of the home purchase price toward the loan down payment.”), and approval of a new loan construction program is underway. The fourth announcement stated that 17 new leaseholds have been made available for new home construction, however this does not necessarily benefit University employees.
Given that the aforementioned email was sent in July, there is yet another development. On October 5, the administration announced that the new loan construction program (an interest-free loan for employees looking to build) is also now officially underway to ease the financial burden of building a house on the Domain and accelerating new construction.
The Sewanee housing crisis parallels a growing nation-wide housing crisis, in which the construction of starter-homes is often neglected for the sake of more profitable development projects. Malone said Sewanee’s crisis has already had worrisome impacts on the community and the University. “Mostly what I see is there is a human element of being here that seems like it’s eroding. What makes Sewanee attractive are the intangibles.”