The Hoya published an article titled “Campus Plagued With Fires, Floods, Facilities Issues” in April 2010. Nearly eight years later, the same headline could be on this week’s front page.
The decrepit state of Georgetown University’s student housing infrastructure is widely mocked and publicized. The Instagram page “georgetown.hotmess,” which depicts housing horror stories through pictures and clips, has amassed over 2,800 followers. Since 2012, The Hoya’s editorial board has urged the administration to reform maintenance channels, establish student-run maintenance programs and prioritize renovations.
Despite public discontent, housing problems persist because campus renovation is plagued by selective transparency: University fundraising tends to highlight new construction while avoiding student maintenance needs. Furthermore, lack of public reports on the severity of maintenance issues enables Georgetown to refrain from truly addressing facilities problems.
Finding Georgetown students with anecdotes about dilapidated housing is not a particularly difficult task.
Larry Huang (COL ’19) and his roommates dealt with mice, mold and holes in the floor of an Alumni Square apartment.
Caroline Wohl (COL ’20) lacked shower water pressure for an entire semester in her East Campus apartment; maintenance staff only fixed the issue after nine work order submissions.
Luke O’Grady’s (SFS ‘21) room on the second floor of Village C West flooded for three days after an overflowed toilet three floors above leaked water and other fluids all the way down to his bathroom.
While plenty of students have bitter housing stories, university administrators do not share meaningful details about the extent of maintenance issues.
In an interview about rodent infestation last fall, Vice President of Facilities and Maintenance Robin Morey told The Hoya that his department received fewer service calls about rodents in 2017 than 2016. However, fewer service calls do not mean fewer rats: A skeptical student could attribute a decrease in calls to a growing mistrust in Georgetown’s willingness to respond to complaints.
When asked in an email whether housing maintenance-related issues have improved or worsened, Morey touted the additions of Isaac Hawkins and Ryan Hall and Arrupe Hall, as well as ongoing efforts to renovate Henle Village and Alumni Square. He also acknowledged that “there is more work to do,” citing new renovation spending in the board of directors’ five-year financial plan.
Morey’s assessment, however, fails to address whether Georgetown students suffer from more housing maintenance issues today than in previous years. The addition of new halls and some renovation efforts do not honestly reflect the general state of housing at Georgetown.
Morey’s vagueness on the scope of maintenance problems reflects a core issue with student housing: limited public disclosure of maintenance-related issues. Annual maintenance reports are noticeably absent from Georgetown’s public releases, while financial reports and reports on crime and fire safety are more available.
In 2016, the university invited consultants from architectural firm Ayers Saint-Gross to assess student housing in coordination with the Georgetown University Student Association. GUSA representatives expressed frustration that the study would not be finished before agreement to the 2017-36 campus plan, the 20-year construction plan required by the District of Columbia for the university to plan development projects.
Two years later, reports on the progress of the study are nowhere to be found. When asked about the study, current chair of GUSA’s Residential Living policy coalition Daniel Marshall (SFS ’19) said, “This is the first time I’m hearing about it.”
The opacity of maintenance is exacerbated by the university’s fundraising tactics, which mask student maintenance needs from donors. As The Hoya’s editorial board argued in a February 2017 editorial, the university wrongly prioritizes “new projects over maintenance of existing infrastructure.” Data from Georgetown’s financial statements over the past few years confirms that new construction has significantly overtaken renovation as a share of capital spending.
Renovation and capital maintenance fell as a share of total capital spending to only 29 percent in 2017 from 77 percent in 2014. The development of the Thompson Athletic Center and Arrupe Hall largely explain this trend, further demonstrated by the rapid growth of new construction as a share of capital spending.
A closer look at Georgetown’s annual financial reports reveals that new infrastructure tends to be financed by gifts and grants, while renovation and housing draw from debt and university reserves.
Rachel Pugh, Georgetown’s senior director of strategic communications, said in an email to The Hoya that fundraising efforts for “brick and mortar” gifts tend to highlight new construction rather than maintenance, since the latter is less attractive.
“Investments in new facilities are much more appealing than renovations and maintenance,” Pugh said. “As a result, we tend to focus our fundraising efforts on new building projects and rely on university resources to address other needs.”
Georgetown should do its best to appease donors. However, the university must candidly share its maintenance struggles in a concerted effort to convince donors to put their dollars where they are most needed. Georgetown alumni are certainly smart and empathetic enough to understand the importance of dorm maintenance.
Significant changes to student housing renovation might be in store with the Georgetown Community Partnership’s 20-year campus plan, determined with input from GUSA members in its Steering Committee and students among its six working groups. GUSA leadership pushed the university to prioritize renovation throughout the campus plan’s drafting. A month before the plan’s June 2016 release, then-GUSA President Enushe Khan (MSB ‘17) referred to renovation as GUSA’s top housing priority in an interview with The Hoya. Her predecessor, Joe Luther (COL ’16), had also stressed the goal to make sure that on-campus housing was “well-maintained” under the campus plan. Georgetown’s next five-year financial plan, which outlines specific spending details for 2019-22, dedicates much more funding to deferred maintenance in student housing than its predecessor.
It is too early to declare victory for student housing renovation, however. While the campus plan has placed renovations prominently on the university’s agenda, the plan does not resolve underlying maintenance transparency problems, which might undermine its implementation: With alumni continuing to donate disproportionately to new construction and no concrete method to assess renovations in sight, maintenance goals could lose priority.
To prevent apathy toward repairs, GUSA representatives should supplement their efforts to encourage the university to publish renovation timelines with a broader push for annual public
maintenance reports and student survey data to provide metrics for the administration’s efforts. Using such data to highlight Georgetown’s housing problems might also be a critical step to gaining donor support for renovation.
Encouraging the administration to make maintenance and its shortcomings more transparent to students and donors alike is key to preserving the spirit of renovation that GUSA fought for in the campus plan. While strong pushes by GUSA executives have brought renovation to the forefront of the university’s planning, only sustained pressure will keep it there.
Harrison Hurt is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.