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Lack of air conditioning in college houses inspires debate about rent prices. | DP File Photo

Making friends, writing longer papers and navigating a new city are some of the things a typical Penn freshman expects to deal with in their first few months of college. Coping with heat rashes and leaving hot rooms for air conditioned study spaces in the middle of the night are not.

Engineering freshman Luke Yeagley was concerned even when moving into his room on the third floor of Kings Court English College House, one of the college houses at Penn that doesn’t have air conditioning.

“It was so hot, my grandpa had to stop a couple times because he was getting so overheated,” he said.

It got worse from there. Increases in temperatures, coupled with the fact that Kings Court windows only open a few inches outward from the base, made Yeagley’s room into a place where he was unable to study.

“You just can’t function when you’re dripping sweat like that,” he said. “I understand that there are libraries around that we can go to and study, but why shouldn’t I be able to study in my own room?”

Eight hundred out of the 6,500 students who live in on-campus housing live without air conditioning. Hill College House’s renovations will make Gregory College House, Dubois College House, and Kings Court the last buildings still subject to the summer swelter.

It’s not helpful that Kings Court is just yards away from the recently opened New College House, where students pay the same amount in rent, adding to the feeling for Yeagley that he got the severely short end of the stick.

“When it comes to the point where you can’t do anything in your room it really sucks, because you look down at the New College House with people chilling in their rooms with their smart TVs, and we’re paying the same as them,” he said.

The TVs seem to be a special source of contention. Another College freshman in Kings Court, Beatrize Stephen-Pons, said they added insult to injury when she couldn’t even sleep the night before an important interview because of the intense heat. First, she took a cold shower and soaked her clothes in cold water. That didn't work. Everything dried and she was still hot. 

“I tried to sleep in the library, I tried to sleep in the blue lounge, I tried to sleep in any of the air conditioned areas I could find that was still close enough to my things in the morning for me to be able to get ready quickly,” she said. But she couldn’t ever get comfortable and went into her interview sleep-deprived. “Especially when you look down the street where there’s the New College House, where not only do they have A/C but they have flat screen TVs, it seems they’re living in extravagance, and I can’t sleep at night.”

“Having no A/C is not the biggest issue in the world, it’s ok, it’s doable,” she said. “But for me personally, I grew up in Chicago, I slept in the basement. I’m used to being able to fall asleep when it’s extremely cold and to essentially go through what felt like a heat wave in my first few weeks on campus was really difficult, and I felt like I started off the academic year poorly because of it.”

And she probably had an easier time than her friend, who she says started getting heat rashes.

Director of Business Services John Eckman said the reason the college houses without air conditioning are the same prices as those with air conditioning is because of the compression of room rates from six categories to two that happened in October 2015. Now, all dorms are the same price except for high-rise apartments with a kitchen, living room and private rooms.

“The point of the switch was to get as many rooms as possible to the university’s cost of attendance, which is where financial aid is determined,” Eckman said. “So what we did, we lowered a lot of rents and we adjusted a lot of rents to get as many rooms as we could to that same price.”

Director of Communications and External Relations for Business Services Barbara Lea-Kruger emphasized the new rates were based on “access, not amenities.”

But for students like Yeagley, this seems like a poor excuse.

“I know the whole freshman experience is that you’re supposed to tough it out, but I’ve been over there [to New College House], I have friends over there,” he said. “It’s just like, why? I don’t get it. I think they should give us a room and board break.”

Wharton freshman Jordan Meachum thought she could handle the heat.

“I’m from Georgia, you know, ‘Hotlanta,’” she said.

But the the temperature of her room in Kings Court still caught her off guard.

“I woke up one time really sticky and it’s disgustingly hot, my friend could tell the temperature in her room and it was like 92, 93 degrees in there,” she said. “I have to sleep with a fan on my face every night.”

And just within her building, she said it gets worse as you go up in the floors.

“I went up to the fifth floor and it was completely unbearable,” she said.

She’s also seen students, like Stephen-Pons, sleeping in the library and public spaces in the building.

Even the public spaces didn’t used to be air conditioned. Eckman said that the University has been slowly adding air conditioning to college houses, first to the entire Quadrangle fifteen years ago, then to the public spaces in Kings Court, Dubois and Gregory during their renovations a few years ago, and now to Hill. All of the rooms in Hill will have air conditioning next year.

“The reason it’s difficult is because the buildings were not originally designed with air conditioning in mind,” he said. “Their electrical systems and the HVAC aren’t sized to do it, so when you go in and do it it’s a major, significant renovation.”

Part of the reason they weren’t designed with air conditioning in mind is that this August is the hottest since 1880. Penn classes also used to start later than August.

“We didn’t know that [the academic calendar would change] when these earlier renovations were done, school was starting sometimes a week into September,” he said.

Eckman said Business Services realizes it’s hot. They were responsible for giving $5 per person to go toward ice cream in all the dorms without air conditioning on one of the hottest days last week.

“Gregory wiped out Ben & Jerry’s,” he said.

The students at Kings Court saw this as a nice gesture, though not one that really helped their situations at all.

“Honestly, we need some A/C,” Meachum said. “It’s not comfortable for all of us.”

“Comfort” is a word that keeps coming back in these conversations. How comfortable is too comfortable? All of these students talked about how the lack of air conditioning in Kings Court has actually caused the house to bond in the common, air-conditioned spaces.

“The ideal dorm room should not be this place that you’re so comfortable that you’re not social and just want to stay in there,” Stephen-Pons said. She said she knows some people who spend all their time in their suite at New College House, for instance. But she adds, “It should be comfortable enough so you can study, eat, sleep.”

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