Enrollment growth is contributing to an acute housing shortage at Prairie View A&M University, a recurring problem that's prompting disputes over which students deserve priority for on-campus accommodation.
The Houston Chronicle reports after protests from students and parents, administrators this month suspended recently announced plans to house first-year students in a portion of a residence hall now occupied primarily by juniors and seniors. But the broader housing problem, on a campus with only enough beds for about half of its students, continues to be a challenge.
"For me, it was made clearer than ever that many students feel that their concerns about these persistent issues have been minimized or disregarded," Timonthy Sams, the vice president of student affairs, wrote in a letter to the Prairie View community.
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Prairie View A&M, a historically black university 45 miles northwest of Houston, lies in a rural area with a limited stock of off-campus housing. Finding habitation for its growing student body has been a problem intermittently for years.
Prairie View reached its highest enrollment -- a total of 9,516 students -- in fall 2018, an increase of more than 1,200 students from fall 2015. A total of 4,366 beds, roughly 46 percent of fall enrollment, are available on-campus for students, according to a university spokeswoman.
David Allen, the mayor of the town of Prairie View, said he first learned about problems with student housing in the 1990s.
"It made the news," said Allen, who was living in Los Angeles at the time. "I was like, `Wow.' (Growing enrollment) was a good problem to have, but in my mind it was bad because it hadn't been actively acted on in the city. . It's not as though we didn't have space."
Recent graduate Keeawnya Cole, 22, who is from California, said she first experienced the university's "housing crisis" during her junior year in fall 2016, when she was homeless for around six weeks. At the time, many students were pushed off-campus due to what she says was an overflow. Cole and some of her friends resorted to keeping their luggage in their cars and shacked up with friends on-campus, even though this violated university rules, she said.
"We were are a tight knit-community, and we're going to help each other out," Cole said, but being without stable housing was tough.
"We made it work for the first couple of the weeks," said Cole, who eventually secured off-campus housing.
That same year, the university offered to shuttle at least 100 students to hotels in Cypress and Hempstead because of an overflow, said Yolanda Bevill, assistant to the university president.
The current controversy began Feb. 15, when Sams sent a letter to the university community saying first-year students would receive priority for on-campus housing. Portions of residence halls that primarily house upperclassmen would now accommodate incoming students, the letter stated.
Sams' letter cited University of Nevada at Reno research showing that first- and second-year students living on campus earned a higher grade point average and were more likely to enroll the following year than those living off-campus. He said an "off-campus office initiative" would be launched to replicate components for on-campus living, and he directed potentially displaced students to the university's online directory for off-campus housing.
Sams' plan quickly faced resistance.
At a recent town hall meeting, students expressed concerns that students beyond their first year would be displaced due to high enrollment, according to Angel Butler, a sophomore architecture major.
"We don't have anywhere to go," Butler said.
Students took to social media, some using the hashtag (hash)pantherswithouthomes and (hash)PVTownhall to express their displeasure.
"They just spent ($61 million) for a new stadium, but didn't implement housing," said Cole, the recent graduate.
Butler created a Change.org petition addressed to university President Ruth Simmons in hopes of accumulating 5,000 signatures to amplify students' voices and express their concerns. Many signers vocalized their anger in the comment section.
"As a parent I have been simmering on this all weekend," Jamala Thomas wrote, adding that the surrounding area of Prairie View doesn't have diverse housing options. She added that if her daughter had to move off-campus, "I will be forced to have her look at transfer opportunities at TAMU!"
Butler said a protest was planned, but was canceled after Sams responded in another letter.
"I want you to know that I heard your concerns and have decided to suspend plans to utilize a portion of University Square for first-year housing next year," Sams wrote, adding that he had learned more about students' concerns regarding housing, transportation for off-campus students and financial aid issues.
Sams also announced plans to launch a task force, to include students, to help devise a housing strategy.
Bevill, the university spokeswoman, said students may have misunderstood the extent of possible displacement caused by shifting residence halls to first-year students: "We weren't talking about a large population," she said.
Still, Sams' retraction of his changes was seen as a victory for students, said Butler. Even so, "We still have a lot of work to do," she said.
The university's location in the small town of Prairie View, with a 2017 population of about 6,400, limits choices for off-campus housing. Schools in urban areas often have more options in surrounding neighborhoods, said David Houck, managing director of the higher education practice at real estate services firm JLL. A university can play a pivotal role in establishing housing demands and pricing expectations, even off campus, through decisions on how much to invest in on-campus housing, Houck said.
Most available homes in Prairie View are rented to students by older couples in the community, Cole said, and other facilities students where students live are usually older, according to Mayor Allen. Lack of transportation -- the one university shuttle that runs off campus is often late -- and crime in neighboring areas also have been deterrents, according to Butler and Cole.
A private, off-campus development, Panther Hill Apartments, was not complete when classes began in fall 2018, and some students were offered delayed leases.
In January, Sams stated that he would establish an on-campus housing office, with the university's housing coordinator already working to alleviate students' ongoing issues with Panther Hill, which included mold, water damage and rooms in need of repairs.
Bevill says the demand for on-campus housing varies every year.
"You can project, but I don't think you can accurately predict from semester to semester how many students will demand housing," she said.
Some progress is being made.
Bevill said the university plans to open a new, 540-bed on-campus facility in 2020. The university will also work on solutions to transportation issues mentioned by students. The university has also hired someone to oversee and manage enrollment.
Mayor Allen said some off-campus developments are in the works as well. One project, scheduled to be completed in fall 2020, will include about 300 student rooms and surrounding retail businesses, restaurants and townhomes.
Cole said students are not dissatisfied with Prairie View A&M as a whole.
"We love our school, which is why we're so passionate about what's going on," Cole said.