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Desmond Lim at home—-otherwise known as the Holiday Inn Georgetown.
Faced With a Dearth in On-Campus Housing,
American University Turned to a Local Hotel for a Semester
Last Thursday night, Desmond Lim took his college’s shuttle service—-it happened to be a white stretch limo—-to his college housing, the Holiday Inn Georgetown.
“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy,” says Lim, 23, a junior at American University. Lim’s college recognized it would have a housing crisis for the fall semester and started looking in June for alternatives. It forced some students who expected one roommate into triples and brokered space at the Georgian, an apartment building in Silver Spring.
By Lim’s estimate, between 50 and 60 students live in the Holiday Inn on Wisconsin Avenue NW. They stay two to a room roughly two miles from the main campus on Massachusetts Avenue, coming and going via limo or other vehicles lined up by the hotel through a deal with the college.
Chris Moody, AU’s director of the Office of Housing and Dining Programs, spins AU’s housing problem as a result of AU’s popularity. The college accepted an appropriate number of applicants, he says, but more than the expected number decided to show up.
In addition, fewer upperclassmen went abroad this year, in part because of the excitement surrounding the election.
“Throughout the last academic year and specifically summer, AU received a lot of great press for our nationally renowned first-year student programs, the basketball team’s first appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament, Obama’s campaign stop on campus with the Kennedys [where Sen. Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy both announced their endorsements],” says Moody. All of these things “led to a lot of excitement and enthusiasm.”
In summation: “We ended up having a little bit more demand than supply on campus.”
According to Moody, returning students, who are charged about $4,100 in housing fees per semester, were offered “first dibs” on the hotel and the building in Silver Spring..
“There are students who are upperclassmen who live at the Holiday Inn, so it really is a mixture,” he says. According to several who live there, it’s a mixture dominated by international students. Lim, a native Singapore who transferred to AU, says he’s met students from China, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, Mexico, and El Salvador at the hotel, many of them here for only one semester.
The hotel has its charms, of course-there’s a pool, cable TV, and a cleaning service. But Lim says he’s over the experience. He’s also over the prom-night-style transportation. The limos, he says, are slow and not very nimble in traffic.
His roommate, Shuo Li, is leaving to go home to China this week. He will not deliver a glowing report of college life at American.
“The living condition has been so bad,” says Li, 21. “The study environment-you know, this is a hotel, so we don’t have much room. And the light here in the room is not so good.”
The guys’ room has a circular wooden desk that has barely enough room for a laptop and a book. So they’ve improvised: In another part of the room, they’ve set up an ironing board that holds a lamp and a cup of pens. Their shoes are lined up by the door. Cereal boxes-Fruity Pebbles, Honey Nut Cheerios-and other pantry staples sit on top of the huge TV armoire.
Rather than beer bottles and weird stains typical of dorm hallways, the Holiday Inn’s corridors are pristine beige and carpeted in rich navy with interlocking leaves. The sounds beyond the doors are not of thumping music and yelling boys but rather a pitter-patter of feet and the gentle closing of elevator doors.
Sophomore Geoff Ramsey, 20, is one of the few staying at the hotel who graduated from a U.S. high school. He says he’s made friends from China, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, and Nigeria. There’s no central place for them to hang out, but they chat on the rides home and relax in one another’s rooms. There have been a few hotel parties, but nothing too raucous, says Ramsey. He’s also taken it upon himself to introduce his new friends to more traditional AU gatherings.
“Going to frat parties with these kids has been really funny. They go into these things, and they see the binge-drinking culture, and they’re just like ‘What? Are you serious?'” he says.
At first, Ramsey says his hotel digs were “awesome.ŠThey [the housing office] really built this up. They were talking about the hotel and the weekly maid service and the queen-sized bed,” he says.
AU has experience in selling students on the hotel. According to Moody, the Holiday Inn also served in a previous crunch more than five years ago, before Moody came to work at the housing office.
Ramsey says, for him, the hotel is no longer too thrilling.
“The impermanence of the entire thing really got to me,” he says. “You can never really get used to living in a hotel. It’s not meant to be lived in long-term.”
Despite the obviously limited supply of on-campus housing, there are no real plans to build more dorms. The university is “engaged in proposing the next master plan” for expansion, says Moody, although the proposal won’t be presented to the D.C. Council for at least three more years. There has been discussion of a new residence hall. Yet demographic trends show that admissions numbers will likely decrease in the next few years. Still: The current problem will continue to be a sticking point, at least until the class of 2012 completes its second year.
“Students don’t really move off campus in bulk until their junior year,” says Moody. So his office is working to promote an off-campus housing Web site. It’s also arranging a “partnership” with some nearby buildings.
When the housing strain eases some in the spring semester, as it’s expected to, the students living three to a room will be able to move into doubles. The Holiday Inn residents who are left will also be able to live on campus, says Moody.
Lim plans to move in with a transfer student from New Jersey, a guy he met at the hotel. There’s at least one upside to their relocation: It probably won’t take them long to pack.