Recent Developments in Student Theme Housing Prompt a Look into Faculty and Staff Housing Issues

Mitch Shakespeare

Opinions Editor

Recent theme house cuts are the latest symptom of a deepening affordable housing shortage on the mountain, one that internal reports indicate has become a crisis after decades of warnings and neglect. 

Six theme houses were notified last month that they would be evicted from their townhouses for the coming academic year. To understand why, The Purple dug into decades of reports and recommendations on housing for faculty, staff and seminarians. Those records show a decades-long struggle to provide adequate affordable housing on the domain. The housing problem has become a crisis in the last two years, challenging the University’s longstanding commitment to offer students strong relationships with professors in a close-knit learning community. 

Current students often hear tales about a bygone tradition called “Porch Light,” a practice in which past students were invited to their professors’ houses to eat dinner. There are also stories of faculty members and their students meeting after classes to talk and share a coffee. In recent years, however, those stories have seemed more legend than fact as rising numbers of professors have come to live off the Domain. Although some prefer to be away, the shortage of affordable housing has meant others face an unwanted commute as far away as Murfreesboro or Chattanooga. 

Housing studies dating back to 2003 indicate that Sewanee’s housing shortage has long been  driven by three central issues: affordability, availability, and quality. University administrators have said the current housing crisis was sparked by problems arising from the recent Pandemic. But the repeated housing studies by both internal and external groups indicate that Sewanee’s housing problems are the product of neglect. Affordable housing has been considered a low priority and money earmarked for long-needed upkeep has been allocated to other University priorities.

 Typically new or visiting professors are placed into University-owned rental units until they are able to afford to buy a house and obtain a long-term leasehold on University property. But University-owned rentals have become hard to get in recent years, and faculty who have lived in the units say they’re too often poorly maintained. 

Rose Mary Drake (C’80), said maintenance and available units in the University’s aging rental stock posed challenges when she served as rental housing director from 1997 to 2000.  “At the time, I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” Drake explained. “It wasn’t anywhere near the urgency or shortage that seems to be the case now. It just required a lot of careful management to make sure that there was a spot for everyone. And when I came in, I did a lot of readjusting of rents because, like some of the things going on now, comparable units weren’t necessarily being charged comparable rents.”

“We also did a lot of renovating of units then, right,” Drake continued. “That was 20, 25 years ago. So probably some of the renovations and upgrades we did then are due or overdue, right, for another go around. ”

 Even in  the 1990s, many of the University’s rental units were decades old, she said. “I would say they date from the 1940s or earlier, maybe some were from the 50s. And then we have, what was considered then as new apartments, which are over by the hospital, and the kind of townhouse style. Those are the newest, and I guess they were from maybe the early 60s.”

Some of those units have since been sold or torn down, while newer units were converted into theme houses. Those include the Barnwell apartments, which recently were tagged for conversion into faculty and seminarian rental housing. 

The older units retained as rentals have long had a reputation among their tenants. Stories about the poor state of University rental housing are common among current and past faculty and staff. Some of those stories were documented in past housing studies. For instance, one tenant told the housing committee in 2018:  “The condition of the University housing that I rent is not satisfying. When I first moved in, the house was in poor shape. I spent 3 days cleaning floors, cabinets, and windows. The home has not been maintained well and there is a potential for major roof leaks because no one is taking care of cleaning the gutters and keeping water from accumulating in the valleys. The home does not have an adequate number of fire alarms and no [carbon dioxide] detectors. I have reported this to the proper individuals and this has yet to be addressed. We have had to have someone from the services department come out to replace a busted water heater and rewire outlets that have been wired incorrectly.”

Another tenant offered similar concerns in the same study: “My younger colleagues and friends can’t afford to live here and Sewanee’s rental housing stock is decrepit and has suffered years of maintenance neglect, rendering many units nothing but “mildew dungeons.” (emphasis added) 

Dr. Sean O’Rourke, a professor of Rhetoric and American Studies, said he experienced similar issues when he first arrived as the Brown Foundation Fellow at the University in 2015, moving here permanently in 2016. 

“I was originally housed in the townhouses that are sort of across the street and down from the Inn,” O’Rourke said. “I moved in there, and within about four days, I noticed that some of the books lying on my bed, open, had pages curling because of the humidity. Now, that shouldn’t be a problem except I had the HVAC system running, but it didn’t work. Somebody had also vented the dryer out under the townhouse, so the steamed air came back through the townhouse. A friend of mine had a racoon in her townhouse with everything locked up. So my initial exposure to the housing problem was that.” 

“To the University’s credit,” O’Rourke said , “I was moved to a better dwelling and everything was fine. It was clean and dandy; completely renovated. So no complaints about how quickly the University moved me, and no complaints about the place I went into, but I realized at that point we had a housing issue.” 

The crisis became more widely known in the Sewanee community last spring when the University’s Rental Housing office announced that demand for rental housing exceeded supply, so as many as 34 faculty and staff renters would have to be evicted to allow new hires to move in. Ultimately, 17 renters were forced out. While some found alternative housing on the Domain, several were forced to move as far away as Murfreesboro or Chattanooga and commute back to the Mountain for work.

Dr. Tam Parker, professor of religious studies and chair of the College Coordinating Committee, said the University’s early response was as concerning as its long delay in taking any action.   “About 6 months ago I met an alum who had heard of the housing crisis and was on the verge of purchasing an empty lot on 41A in downtown,” Parker said. “Her plan was to build several affordable multi-family units. At the last minute, the University claimed the property and it still sits empty. Given the situation we are in, this strikes me as odd.”

 More recently, the University announced the removal of six theme houses. Just as had been the case with the seventeen faculty, the occupants of these houses will be made to leave their residences to accommodate for the exceeding demand in rental housing for faculty and staff. 

The theme house cuts answered the need for faculty and staff rental units. That makes sense, given that the theme houses were originally intended to be part of  the rental housing pool. Administrators say that the University is moving to build housing, and the affected theme houses will eventually be restored. 

But the question of how Sewanee got to the point that seventeen employees must be evicted and six theme houses cut remains difficult to answer. “I’m glad to see small stand-alone houses being built, and hope they are price-attainable to faculty and staff,” said Dr. Parker. “At the same time, it is frustrating that we did not first undertake construction of rental apartments and small cluster homes. It’s also frustrating that this crisis, borne of long-standing strategic missteps, was not even recognized as a crisis until a sustained public outcry last year. It is heartening that Incoming VC Pearigen has already spoken of affordable housing as an institutional priority going forward.”

 The decision to convert the theme houses created tension, with some faculty raising concerns that students might think their needs are being sacrificed for those of faculty and staff. “Pitting student and faculty interests against each other is counterproductive,” said Dr. Jennifer Michael, professor of English. “I expect better from Sewanee. Theme houses are one of the best innovations Sewanee has had in recent years. Faculty housing is also essential. We have 13,000 acres; surely we can manage both these things.”

O’Rourke offered similar concerns. “I think closing some of the theme-houses in the short-term might be a reasonable way to move forward, but it would have to be short term,”  he said. “Those theme houses are, in my view, are central to, and I want to stress this, a residential liberal arts college.”

“It’s not like we’re a commuter liberal arts college, or that we are a liberal arts college period,” O’Rourke said. “We are residential, which means part of the liberal arts experience is living here. If you want to be living in a writing house because you’re an aspiring writer who we hope to attract, then you should have a writing house. If you want to be a student of Russian, so that you can work for the state department as many Russian majors do, then you should be in the [Eastern European] house to immerse yourself in Russian culture and language. So if we’re going to close theme houses, I understand that as a possible short-term solution.” 

“But I think the real crucial thing is in the long-term building and financing affordable housing for assistant and beginning assistant professors, renovating and perhaps, if the need is there, building more rental housing for those that are not ready to buy, but also graduate students at the school of theology,” O’Rourke said. “We have to have a vital School of Theology, we have to have an attractive place for junior faculty, or we are going to lose out on attracting really good people. I think those two things have to be an important, perhaps the most important, priority.”

A recent rental housing study, released in January, indicated the University has taken steps to address rental housing issues. In response to a 2018 report, $200,000 was earmarked from rental payments to address “maintenance and improvement of existing units.” The 2023 rental housing report stated, “During the COVID-19 pandemic, Facilities Management was stretched thin by staffing challenges, which made it difficult to address the need for improvements in the rental housing stock.” 

Dr. Scott Wilson, the acting provost for the University, acknowledged that those funds, while allocated, have not been fully spent. “A quarter of a million dollars was dedicated each year and put into a reserve fund for the costs of doing renovations over the summer.” But with the challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, the University had to focus on providing safe teaching spaces. The University’s facilities management department also faced staffing shortages in that period, he said, “There were a lot of tents, a lot of work that was being done by [Facilities Management] to just make the academic realm operable. And there wasn’t a lot of work being done in buildings that was not absolutely necessary.”

When asked about the current status of the funds and their future usage, Wilson said, “My understanding is that they have that money from last year sequestered and we have an additional $200,000 from this current year’s budget. So that’s $400,000 that will be used over the summer to do renovations on units again.”

In the meantime, current rental housing will continue to be an issue affecting junior faculty, seminarians, and staff. “It is really hurting the junior faculty morale,” said Parker. “They come in here, and they feel like, I think, poorly treated employees. Not the way I was sort of brought in. The morale among the junior faculty is much worse, especially amongst our VAPs [visiting assistant professors] who are paid the sub-industry standard, even though we’ve just given them a $5,000 raise, right?”

“Last year’s VAP salary was $6,000 more per year than my beginning pay 23 years ago as a tenure track faculty member,” Parker added. “And at that, if they are ‘lucky’ enough to get into rental housing, that ‘raise’ is completely eaten by the increase in rent. So we’ve prioritized what’s important to us, and it is not faculty retention and well-being. We have searches, especially for VAPs, and one after the other says, Thank you, no. So we’re having a hard time attracting faculty. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that we have chosen as an institution not to prioritize the material needs of the people who work and live here. I think that’s really impacted junior faculty, and I think most of them don’t experience a sense of belonging here.”  

Dr. Wilson said the University  has planned a two-stage fix to address housing needs on the Mountain. A for-profit subsidiary recently set up by the University’s Board of Regents, Sewanee Village Ventures, has been tasked with overseeing construction of new rental housing units, and property has been purchased off Highway 41A near the Duck River Electric Co-op building, he said. “There is, what we call an RFP, or request for proposals, out for bid, and we’re in the process of trying to finalize that so we can begin construction on those. And if this all takes place in a timely way, the expectation is that within two years, we’ll have some of those up and running. The goal is to build somewhere between 20 and 28 units.”

That project should help address the theme house shortage, he said. “If things in the market look like we hope it will, in two years we should be able to flip those (rental units) back into theme houses.”  

On the question of if these proposed units would be strictly reserved for faculty and staff, he responded, “Yes, that’s the intent. If at some point we were to find that we have a surplus of apartments, which would be nice, then we might contemplate opening them up to outsiders.” 

Asked how affordable the new project might be for new tenants, Wilson said, “I haven’t seen the request for proposals, but what the working group wants to underscore to Sewanee Village Ventures is that we need to have them set at a price structure that could be affordable to a lot of people coming in.” 

 After the rental project, he added, “The second stage is that we’re hoping to build another dormitory for first year students somewhere in the central campus area, which will allow us to move people out of the dorms that need renovations. And then we’ll renovate those and open up Gorgas for apartments for seminary students and others. We would redo Gorgas with the idea of having those be available for seminary students primarily. So, that would be another 25 units approximately.”

“Constructing housing that is of the appropriate size and price range is one of the main goals of this process,” Wilson continued. “We think we can achieve that at Gorgas in a way that will also help foster a sense of community with their campus right there. We’re hopeful that the same thing will happen with the pods we’re building down off 41A, that if you’ve got 24 units in proximity, and some of them will be smaller one bedroom, two bedroom and some studios, so that it is likely to appeal to a younger crowd with perhaps less work experience. Hopefully they will come in and find their way here with that housing and developing community.”