Six Theme Houses Without a House Next Year

Meg Butler

News Editor

A move to cut six student theme houses, mandated in a late January housing study, has rocked the student body, with student leaders saying they have had no voice in a major administrative decision.

On February 6th, six student theme houses unexpectedly received an email from Residential Life informing the organizations that they will not be given a house for the upcoming academic year. These included the Martial Arts House, the Asian House, the Fine Arts House, the Music House, The Writing House, and the Peer Health House. This came as a shock to the theme houses and Sewanee community at large and left students wondering why there was a restriction on the number of theme houses this year. Student theme houses routinely resubmit their proposals to obtain a house for the upcoming year, but their members were not aware that the theme houses would be competing for significantly fewer houses for the 2023-2024 year.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Cole (C ’24)

The student body was not informed that there would be less theme housing until an email announcing the cuts was sent to affected houses. “We originally weren’t even told why it was happening, we just got an email, and it was like ‘Why?’ because we met all of the requirements. We were confused, and we found out just by talking with other theme houses. We basically had to find out for ourselves that it was because of faculty housing,” said Mary Bullard (C’23), current co-director of the Writing House. Two days later, an email to all students addressed the issue. 

Yet the news was not a surprise to faculty, who received a report eleven days earlier that stated theme houses would be reduced to help alleviate a long-term shortage in rental housing for University employees.

The spaces that were occupied by student theme houses this year will become rental housing for employees of the University. “Given the pressing nature of demand for rental housing exceeding the current supply of units available, the University should bring some former rental units that have recently been used as theme houses for students back to the University rental pool. Based on estimated demand, the Provost and University Housing Office will work with the Office of Residential Life to identify appropriate units to bring back,” stated the Jan. 25 report outline from the Rental Housing Working Group. “For fiscal year 2023-24, the University should expand its current rental housing pool by making the four Barnwell Apartments, recently used as student theme houses, available for rental by employees and seminary students.” 

The University’s long-standing faculty and staff housing shortage came to a head at the end of the 2021-22 academic year, when 17 employees were evicted from rental housing. In response to faculty protests about inaction to address this ongoing crisis, a working group was formed in the Summer of 2022. “This is years, decades of neglect,” said Dr. Tam Parker, a Religious Studies professor who chairs the faculty’s coordinating committee and heads the Sewanee chapter of the American Association of University Professors.  “It took months and months of sustained agitation by all sorts of constituencies in the Sewanee community to get anything done.”

The resulting report outline released to faculty in late January is the latest in a series of studies and working groups dating back to 2003. Part of the current working group’s immediate solution was to transfer a number of units from student housing to faculty housing. 

In particular, the Barnwell apartments will become faculty housing in the 2023-24 academic year. These apartments were originally built as rental housing for employees but were repurposed as theme housing when the need arose. “We’re at a point where faculty, staff, and seminary students don’t have safe, acceptable housing available to them. So there was a need to reclaim some of the houses that had been part of the University rental pool while we try to get more housing built,” said Dr. Katherine Theyson, chair of the economics department and member of the Rental Housing Working Group.

The number of staff and faculty able to live on the Mountain has dwindled for decades, according to reports from committees and working groups formed as far back as 2003 to address the housing problem. These reports mention the increasing amount of houses being bought by alumni as retirement and vacation homes. The average price of a house in Sewanee has consistently risen for 35 years at a rate outstripping regional or even national trends. “The University has traditionally offered at no cost a range of sought after amenities highly valued by retired and vacationing (second home) residents. We have viewed advertisements touting these amenities in real estate literature being distributed in markets as far away as Cincinnati and Atlanta. This will become an even greater issue,” said a report from 2004 identifying the roots of the housing issue at Sewanee. 

Dean Terry Papillon said he has noticed the shrinkage of available affordable housing since he arrived on campus and has been increasingly concerned about its effect on the University community. “I’ve only been here for nine years, but it used to be that most of the faculty and most of the staff lives within a 15 minute drive of the campus. That is not at all the case anymore, and that injures the community and the intellectual environment. Since the month before I started my job in July of 2014, I have been saying that we need to build a strip of brownstones [row houses].”

In 2018, a housing study group noted that only 25 percent of housing leases on the domain were then held by absentee homeowners. The 2018 study group recommended that Sewanee “create a cap for the percentage of leaseholds held by non-residents on the Domain” and “replace the 3-year occupancy limit for tenants with an option to renew leases on a year-by-year basis.” The 3-year occupancy limit was the reason for the 17 evictions at the end of the last academic year. Additionally, there is still no cap on the number of leaseholds that can be held by non-residents of Sewanee.

The University’s most recent housing study cited the alumni demand for second homes as a major driver of housing prices, which local realtors say has reached high-end resort levels in recent years. “Sewanee is a place where many alumni like to purchase secondary homes, which are not occupied throughout the year. The long term trend of non-permanent residents purchasing the limited housing stock in Sewanee has exacerbated the challenge of employees affording to purchase local houses, thereby increasing pressure on the rental housing pool,” the January 2023 working group report stated. Dr. Theyson said her recent experience in searching for affordable housing on the Mountain is not unusual for faculty and staff. She recently was able to purchase a home after a long search finally turned up one for less than $450,000, the first she had seen available on the Domain in a price range that most professors could afford in years.

The number of rental housing units has steadily decreased over the years, and the shortage became particularly acute in the past year. “There was a real decrease in rental housing for the University. Some of them had been demolished because they had gotten to be in such bad shape, but for those that were demolished, nothing was built in their place. Some had been converted into student theme housing, a fairly sizable number. And then the University had actually sold some,” said Dr. Theyson. 

The latest working group did not include any student representation. However, the committee’s findings and conclusions trickled down notably to student life through theme housing. “I don’t know how the construction of the group happened. I was invited to be a part of the group, but I was not part of constructing it. But I don’t know that having a student on this committee would have changed the outcome, because the need is really acute,” said Dr. Theyson. 

Students were particularly upset about Peer Health not receiving a house for the upcoming year as the organization is a student resource. In response to the news, students reposted pictures on Instagram that read “I got my condom at The Peer Health House,” or “I got my COVID test at the Peer Health House,” among other reminders of the importance of the student resources Peer Health provides. “I think the group is going to be disconnected. The location of our house right now is really important because we’re on central campus, so we can give COVID tests or condoms really easily. We’re also next to the social lodge, so if we have events there we often have someone in the Peer Health house to be available for peer support if anyone needs to step out, so that proximity is really important,” said Emma Ross-Sermons (C’23), current co-director of the Peer Health House. The Peer Health organization has been given a part of a floor in Ayres Hall in which to live and operate next year. Ross-Sermons expressed concern that people won’t be interested in Peer Health if they can’t live in a theme house.

The Writing House, also not receiving a house next year, expressed similar concerns about the switch to residence halls for an organization. “We’re going to have to work a lot harder to make it feel like we are a cohesive group because the common space is a really important part of the Writing House. I think that the naturally occurring bond will be harder without a common room,” said Julianna George (C’25), next year’s co-director of the Writing House. 

The current co-directors of the Writing House, Peer Health House, and others were blindsided by Residential Life’s decision to take away their house. According to the rubric provided to the Writing House by Residential Life, each theme house was scored according to the number of events they held, the number of attendees, the ability to fill a house with residents, a “clear reasoning” as to why an organization needs a physical house, “comprehensive examples of programming,” and a strong “purpose/mission statement.” These categories were scored by Residential Life on a score between 1 and 3. “We saw the rubric and found that a lot of the scoring guidelines on the rubric were objective categories with subjective scores, which felt like a punch in the throat because no matter how much we did last semester or year, it wasn’t visible to them,” said Ross-Sermons. 

Casey Kreger, director of Residential Life, said the same standards were used for assessing theme houses as in years past. “In past years, it was more like inventory. All the organizations got houses except for the ones who didn’t meet any of the requirements. This year, it was a lot harder with more limited space.” 

Student organizations met with Kreger and the Residential Life office extensively to discuss what might make the theme house process more equitable for all students. “This process brought to light mechanisms that need to be changed and redeveloped. We have to look at the elements of the process and feedback we got from student groups and really look at that as a holistic process that is transparent,” said Kreger. 

Kreger also stated that the decisions are never permanent, and these theme houses will be able to apply for a house next year “hopefully under a new lens.” He added that the number of available theme houses will not drop any lower but could fluctuate or grow larger in coming years.

Although upset about losing theme houses, students said they were most bothered by the lack of communication before cuts were imposed. Students in the theme houses said they understood the need to address affordable housing for University employees. They and their supporters contended that the cuts would’ve been made more fairly and effectively if student representatives had been included in the decision-making process and the administration had communicated the community’s overall needs more clearly. 

Dr. Theyson said she and other faculty are concerned about the impact on theme housing and the potential loss of services and programs they provide. She added that she and other faculty hope that students aren’t pitted against faculty as the community attempts to find solutions for housing on the Mountain. “Our needs really do align, I think if students and faculty can speak in one voice about those needs, that will go further in getting those needs addressed than if we fight over the current constrained resources,” she said.

Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Cole and Opinions Editor Mitch Shakespeare contributed to this story.