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Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

After student complaints, administrators will hold focus groups next month to figure out how to improve housing options for graduate students on campus.

The only on-campus housing option for graduate students is Sansom Place East, unless they work as graduate associates in other dorms, including the high rises. Graduate students over the years have criticized the dilapidating conditions of Sansom Place East, including faulty appliances, the lack of cleanliness, and pests. Sansom Place West is currently closed due to the lack of interest in graduate student housing. 

Students said the building conditions in Sansom Place East are deteriorating despite the onslaught of new undergraduate dorms on campus. Within the past four years, the Lauder College House was built and opened, Hill College House was renovated, and New College House West, which had a $163 million budget, is slated to open in 2021. In contrast, Sansom Place East hasn't been fully renovated since it was built in 1970, though parts of it have been upgraded, said Douglas Berger, the executive director for Business Services.

After reviewing survey data, the Provost’s Office and Business Services are looking to hold focus groups in November, inviting graduate and professional students to discuss their housing and transportation needs.

This is the first time the Provost’s Office and Business Services have approached the topic of graduate housing together, Berger said.

“We have a lot of data, but we want to hear directly from students and test that there’s not something we’re missing,” said Barbara Lea-Kruger, director of Communications and External Relations for Penn Business Services.

Stephanie Ko, a master's candidate for professional counseling, chose to live at Sansom because she grew up in California and did not know anything about housing in the Philadelphia area. She said many of her amenities need updating, and her oven does not work. A major issue in the building is the efficacy of maintenance requests. Her sink gets clogged frequently, and it took her three separate maintenance requests and nearly three months to get a moldy shower curtain replaced. 

“It takes a couple times to get those orders completed. Sometimes, the maintenance requests don’t do anything to help the condition that we live in,” Ko said.

Ko, who plans to attend the focus groups, said she is advocating for better lounges in Sansom Place East. Many students currently do not use the Sansom lounges because they are all located in a windowless basement, and are in "pretty poor condition," Ko said.

“I wish we were more integrated within the Penn community, and also I think part of that is due to the fact that we are isolated here. It’s just one building, there’s nobody in the other one, and I think we deserve to be heard too. Our voices matter as well, and not just the undergrads,” Ko said. 

Yanning Yu, a second-year graduate student in the Graduate School of Education, said the maintenance issues she encountered in her room at Sansom Place East included the lack of cleanliness, issues with the fridge and the fire alarm, leaking pipes, and pests.

Because of maintenance in her room last year, she and her roommate were temporarily moved to a room in Sansom West without a working bathroom. At one point, she had keys for three different rooms: her Sansom East room, her Sansom West room, and a separate bathroom.  

"Most of my friends are living here and then they move out. There must be a reason: The housing’s not good," Yu said. "I’m staying here because I don’t want to waste my time packing up and then moving again, find new housing, find new roommates. But it doesn’t mean that this is good. I was forced to do this." 

Ko, who is also the Sansom representative for the Residential Services Advisory Board, told her concerns about Sansom to the rest of the board, which looks to connect students with interests in housing with Business Services and Residential Services. 

“It seems that Sansom Place is on the bottom of the list every year, and I’m trying to hopefully bring it up because we are students here too. We deserve equal treatment,” Ko said. “Personally, I think there’s a lot that could be improved, and I’m hoping we get some recognition soon.” 

Sansom tends to be a convenient housing option for international students because of their inability to learn much about off-campus housing options, both students and administrators said. 

“They’re looking for the easiest, the quickest place, and if we have places at Sansom, that’s an easier place for them," Berger said. "It’s also an easy place because we’re on-campus housing – it’s safe, it’s secure, it’s convenient." 

Berger said about half of the residents in Sansom Place East are international students. However, Sansom is also a more convenient option for students in one-year master's degree programs, as it offers more convenient nine to 10-month leases, said Anita Mastroieni, the associate vice provost for graduate education. 

There are about 600 graduate students who live on campus, Mastroieni said. About 525 of these graduate students live in Sansom East, whereas the others act as GAs in the remaining college houses. 

“We are in the process, as an institution, at looking at our options for Sansom,” Berger said.