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The State of Cornell's Off-Campus Student Housing

In light of the tragic fire and death of Ian Alberta '06 this past weekend, it seems almost inevitable that a discussion of the safety and quality of Cornell's off-campus student housing will arise. Such a discussion should probably take place regardless of whether or not negligence or foul-play (on anybody's part) accompanied this tragedy. (And all information suggests that the fire was accidental and that the landlord, one Mary Ridgeway Tinker, is an upstanding doctor in the Ithaca community.)

Ask any Cornell upperclassmen who has lived off-campus about the state of housing in Collegetown and they will tell you that it leaves a lot to be desired. The Ithaca rental market is full of absentee landlords -- soaking up student's rent checks and enjoying the good life elsewhere -- all while students are living in reproachable conditions. Upon moving into my Collegetown apartment junior year, I quickly discovered that my stove wasn't working, there was a gas leak in the house, there were holes in my mattress, our back door and many of our windows was rotting out, and the porch's railings were ready to collapse. Meanwhile, as the property manager told me, the man who I was sending my monthly checks to was enjoying retirement down in Tampa.

Unsurprisingly, these problems are perennially faced by any college town in America, and there doesn't seem to be an easy way to solve them. Landlords are essentially able to capture a captive market with large amounts of turnover from year to year. Student renters often lack information and the gumption to ask their landlords for the necessary improvements to their apartment, and even if they did, it is often too late, and the students are ready to move apartments or graduate. Knowing this, landlords can afford to not make any capital improvements in their property for years and get away with it. Meanwhile, municipal building inspectors will be encouraged to set lax standards, knowing what a boon the apartment rental market is for the community.

Where can reform come from, then? Cornell has a strong tradition of students active in local government, but to the best of my knowledge no successful attempts have been made to more strictly regulate the off-campus housing market and building codes. Students might be able to place pressure on the local governments to motivate change, but again, such a movement is dampened by the demands and stresses of being a student and the fact that students are transient residents in a city that mostly tries to create laws for its long-term residents. The University itself could try to purchase a lot of the current off-campus housing and convert it into apartments for students, but the minute it makes any such decision the price of the property would skyrocket.

The most ironic part is that most Cornell alums will tell you that the opportunity to live off-campus is one of the best things about the University. Rather than suffocating in dorms for four years, students are encouraged to live off-campus, and in doing so, they learn how to become more responsible and independent while forging strong life-long bonds with their roommates.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 15, 2006 (#)

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