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Credit: Isabel Liang

Many students who wish to return to campus for the spring are rushing to find short-term leases off campus despite Penn's plan to reopen on-campus housing.

Following Penn's closure of on-campus housing just weeks before the start of the fall semester, students are concerned that the University will go back on its word once again, particularly as COVID-19 cases continue to rise during the winter months. Because of the high demand for off-campus housing this spring, some students said it has been difficult to secure a sublet or lease within their budgets.

Engineering sophomore Jimmy Ren stayed home with his family in the suburbs of Chicago this fall after Penn canceled on-campus housing for most students. Although Ren was assigned a three-bedroom suite in Rodin College House for the spring, he and his friends are currently looking for three-bedroom apartments to sublet or lease this spring instead, fearing that Penn may cancel on-campus housing again on short notice.

Ren said that he wants to ensure he can be in Philadelphia this semester regardless of Penn’s ultimate decision on whether dorms can open to all students. 

“80% of [my friends] stayed at home, and 20% went back [this semester],” Ren said. “I think the percentage is going to change next semester. It's almost an entire year off, and I feel like at this point it seems like a better plan to go back.”

Ren added that he felt that dense on-campus housing poses a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than an off-campus apartment.

“[On-campus] housing in general is just a little muddled still,” Ren said. “It's unclear what their guidelines are going to be.”

Students who wish to live on campus will be housed in private bedrooms at a rate of $5,507 for the semester with no more than six students sharing the same bathroom. While housing priority is given to first years, sophomores, and seniors, the University also expects to be able to accommodate juniors who wish to live in on-campus housing.

Ren said the high demand and low availability of sublets for a six-month or semester-long lease has made their search for off-campus housing all the more difficult.

Engineering sophomore Shivani Guha is also home with her family in Texas this semester, and is looking to return to campus in the spring to see her friends and potentially resume research if allowed.

Guha echoed Ren's sentiments on Penn possibly canceling on-campus housing again, noting that she had planned to live on campus in the fall before Penn upended her plans with its last-minute reversal.

Normally, finding housing near Penn is not too difficult, Guha said. But she and her friends have had a hard time finding a four-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment sublet within their price range.

Although Guha posted about her sublet search in a Facebook group for Penn students looking for subletters or leases, she said directly asking friends if they know anyone subletting has been more useful in her search so far.

College junior Diya Singh is an international student from New Delhi, but is currently staying with relatives in Yardley, Pa. Singh said that it is likely she would return to New Delhi if she cannot live near Penn’s campus next semester. She cited the drastic time difference making it harder to attend classes and wanting to see her friends as reasons for wanting to return to campus.

Singh was initially assigned to an on-campus single in Rodin for the fall, but was re-assigned to an off-campus apartment in July as part of the University's de-densifying plan. Singh subsequently canceled the fall assignment after deciding to stay with relatives in Yardley and therefore was not assigned on-campus housing for the spring. When she tried to apply for housing, however, Singh found no option for a one-bedroom with a kitchen, which she wanted for COVID-19 safety precautions.

For Singh, living alone is a priority if she is to come back for the spring semester due to COVID-related health concerns and is currently searching for a studio apartment off-campus. 

Singh said she has had a difficult time finding an off-campus apartment that meets her needs, both because of the relatively small number of studio apartments and because of the high demand.

“There's a huge market for off-campus housing right now, so people have definitely hiked up the prices,” Singh said.

While many students report increased competition and high prices for spring off-campus housing, the search has been smooth sailing for other students like College sophomore Shubha Vasisht.

After deciding it was not worth coming back to campus for a fully online semester, Vasisht, who hails from Princeton, N.J., also canceled her housing assignment before Penn closed on-campus housing in August. While students who canceled their fall room assignment can apply for spring semester housing starting Nov. 4, Vasisht said she does not feel comfortable returning to the dorms in the case that Penn closes them abruptly again or if a COVID-19 outbreak were to occur. 

"We don't want to take that risk again, where Penn will provide us on-campus housing but then at the very last minute say never mind," she said.

Contrary to Ren and Guha, Vasisht said her search for a three-bedroom sublet was easier than expected. After posting in a Facebook group for subleases near Penn's campus, she received five offers and plans to tour them before the end of the semester.

Likewise, for College senior Sabrina Ochoa, the search for off-campus housing has been fairly easy. Ochoa, who is currently subletting an apartment in North Philadelphia, said that she and her roommates are currently deciding between a few sublet options closer to campus for the spring. Unlike some students' search for housing, Ochoa said she has encountered cheaper prices than normal.

“I think the prices have been a little bit better actually,” Ochoa said. “I think some people seem like they're a little bit more anxious to sublet their stuff, so they’re lowering their prices.”

Ochoa said that being closer to campus next semester is a priority for her, regardless of what Penn ultimately decides about dorms.

“If we're all going to be in Philly, even if we're doing remote school, we might as well be close to each other,” Ochoa said, referring to herself and her friends.