Penn just approved its third housing project in four years. But is another dorm necessary?

New College House West, which will be built over the high rise field, is the latest of three major projects that Penn has undertaken in the past four years to expand on-campus housing. Some administrators have said that the main reason for building New College House West is an apparent need for more on-campus housing, though student accounts and data on student housing seem to contradict this. 

Interviews with various administrative departments suggest that it might be more likely that Penn approved plans for New College House in 2013, Hill College House in 2015, and NCHW in 2017, with the long-term goal of providing capacity that would allow them to renovate older college houses like the Quad. 

Student accounts and data suggest that there isn't increasing demand for on-campus housing 

When the University Board of Trustees announced the construction of NCHW earlier this month, Penn President Amy Gutmann said the new residential building would “enable more Penn students to participate in the College House system.”

Vice President of Penn Business Services Marie Witt said the average occupancy rate across all College Houses is 97 percent and in some years, that rate has reached 100 percent. University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy also told The Daily Pennsylvanian in an emailed statement that while Penn currently has the capacity to house 5,800 of the school's 10,468 undergraduates, there is a “need beyond that.” 

But information from other administrative departments seems to contradict this. 

Data from Penn Business Services shows that every year since 2012, the number of undergraduates who live in College Residence halls has hovered around 5,700 students, which is a hundred less than the 5,800 that MacCarthy said Penn is able to house.

Various students have also indicated anecdotally that they are looking to move off-campus or continue staying in their off-campus apartments because it can offer lower prices. In 2016, around 4,300 students lived off campus. 

Despite several new major housing projects from Penn, Bill Groves, the senior operations manager of the real estate company University City Housing, said he has not seen undergraduate demand for off-campus housing decrease in recent years. He added that he has in fact seen an increase in demand for off-campus housing among graduate students. 

A representative from Domus, an off-campus apartment building located at 34th and Chestnut streets, said 50 to 60 percent of the apartment building complex is made up of Penn students, and demand has only been increasing. 

“We have a lot more students than we used to have and the majority of them are Penn in some capacity,” said the representative. He added that while the complex has adjusted its rates to accommodate the increase in competition with new buildings around campus, there were no current plans to take similar steps in anticipation of NCHW.

David Adelman, chief executive officer of the real estate company Campus Apartments, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of its residences are occupied by Penn undergraduate students. He added that the company has never had houses that they couldn’t fill. 

Photo: Alana Shukovsky

These accounts also seem to conflict with Penn's argument that there is a need to build NCHW in order to accommodate growing demand for on-campus student housing. 

College sophomore and current Radian resident Ila Sethi said she would not opt to live in NCHW given the choice. 

“The high rises already have the same location on campus and most juniors and seniors choose not to live there,” she said. “I don’t think anyone ever chooses to go off campus because of a lack of availability on campus.”

On-campus housing at Penn has faced stiff competition from off-campus options

In the past decade, Penn's college houses have had to compete with the range of off-campus apartment-style buildings that have popped up across campus. These include luxury apartments like Domus and the Radian, as well as more affordable options like Chestnut Hall Apartments and the recently renovated Hamilton Court Apartments. 

Witt said NCHW is being designed to address these student demands for more suite-style living arrangements. 

Based on the results of a 2016 survey that Penn Business Services conducted on nearly 600 undergraduates who were moving off campus, Witt and her team concluded that students would prefer to stay on campus if they were given better living arrangements. 

According to survey results, 52 percent of the participants said that they planned to live in residences that could accommodate four or more friends, and approximately 60 percent indicated that the opportunity to live with friends was one of the reasons they decided to live off campus.

Witt cited the suite-style rooms that New College House offers as the type of room that many students hoped to stay in.

Rendering from Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Architects

“We did numerous market analysis with on- and off-campus housing,” Executive Director of Business Services Doug Berger said. “We find that students who are moving off campus after their freshman year, they’re looking for anywhere from a four-to-five-to-six bedroom suite, and that’s what we put in New College House, and that’s been very successful.” 

However, some students still find that there are clear advantages to living off campus.

College sophomore Dan Gonzalez said the absence of private kitchens in NCHW would deter him from living there.

"Not having kitchens in dorms makes things inconvenient, especially if people want to get off the meal plan but still live on campus," Gonzalez said. "These inconveniences lead students to move off campus to just live in houses or apartments that have the appliances they want which are ultimately cheaper than living on campus with less [amenities]." 

Engineering sophomore Tina Jia agreed. "I would want a kitchen," she said. "I also think Penn's [main campus] is crowded enough and am not sure why they are building more residential halls."

Wharton sophomore Catalina Muñoz, who lives in Hamilton Court Apartments, which is just two blocks away from the proposed NCHW location, said living on campus does not offer the same "freedom" that comes with living off campus.

“I know a lot of people who wanted to live off campus because they didn’t like the feeling of having someone controlling them,” Muñoz said. “A lot of students came to this school because it’s a city school where they can have their independence.” 

NCHW may be slated to accommodate upcoming renovations to the Quad

Another long-term objective for building NCHW that administrators have cited is to pre-empt the need for extra housing when renovating existing dorms, Witt said. 

Once NCHW is completed in 2021, Witt said Penn will begin “significant renovation” to the Quad, closing one of the three dorms at a time over the course of three academic years. 

The last major renovation to the Quad dorms was back in 1998, and the project took four summers to complete because there was no extra space to house the would-be displaced students. 

“[The Quad] is over 100 years old and by the time we build New College House West we’ll have the space to renovate the Quad dorms,” Witt said. She added that once the Quad is fully renovated, renovation in the high rises will also take place.