American University's campus. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

With mask-wearing mandated, guidelines to stay at least 6 feet apart in effect, and the temporary or permanent closures of hundreds of restaurants and retailers, the entirety of D.C. looks far different in the fall of 2020 than it did a year ago. However, the college neighborhoods of D.C.—Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Tenleytown, and Shaw, among them—resemble a shadow of their former selves. The lack of undergraduate students on and around campus has impacted housing, dining, and livelihood across the neighborhoods.

Throughout June and July, D.C. universities were revising plans for a hybrid semester that would bring some students back to campus and have others join classes remotely. Many universities prioritized housing for freshman, resident assistants, athletes, and other smaller groups. But the rising number of COVID-19 cases throughout the country. coupled with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s July 27 decision to require visitors from a list of 27 states to quarantine for two weeks once they arrived in D.C., motivated every major university in the District to reverse their initial decisions and opt for virtual-only models. A very limited number of students, including international students and those with exceptional home circumstances, were allowed to return to campus. 

While universities worked quickly to reverse their academic and operational plans, they could not fully control the number of students in their neighborhoods. Most D.C. schools allow and even encourage juniors and seniors to find off-campus housing. This benefits students, who can pay less when renting off campus, and the universities, which are able to maintain operational capacity and make room for incoming students. House hunting and lease signing can start anywhere from two years in advance to just a few months before move-in. This year, many students who signed leases for off-campus housing found themselves in a challenging predicament: either return back to a campus and neighborhood without regular access to resources and community, or attempt to cancel their leases or negotiate them to reduce or change the amount of residents.

Miranda Rispoli, a junior at American University, directly felt the impact of the abrupt change. “In July, AU announced a Forward plan in which upperclassmen would likely not have housing, so my pre-planned on-campus [housing] went away. Since I was under the impression school was going to be hybrid, I signed a lease with two of my friends,” she says. “I flew to D.C. on July 28, and the moment I landed, I got the email that AU was going online. Since I was already in D.C. and my lease was already signed, I was kind of stuck here.”  

Manush Morbahan, a senior at George Washington University living off-campus in Foggy Bottom, decided to come back to D.C. for the academic year, but says she and her peers have had difficult experiences with housing.

“The landlords around GWU were not flexible … I had a friend living in the Claridge House Cooperative in Foggy Bottom. He was a senior graduating early and was trying to get out of his lease because he got laid off and stopped paying rent. He lives in a condo with a personal landlord, and they’re still in negotiations but are potentially getting lawyers involved.”

Morbahan’s housing group also explored the option of lease amendments, but ultimately, she says she “doesn’t know anyone who was able to get out of their lease or get a rent reduction.”

For students who wanted to stay home but couldn’t break their leases, subleasing was the next best option. 

“Students that had a lease but did not want to be in D.C. sub-leased their rooms to students who made the opposite decision, that would prefer to be in D.C. even if classes were online,” explains Anna Landre, a senior at Georgetown University and an ANC 2E Commissioner.  

While a big draw of being in D.C. is being with peers, Landre cited the health resources of being in a city as benefits as well. “A lot of students came back because they have better access to health care, whether it’s mental health or if your doctors are here.”

“It can be really isolating to live alone or with family when you’d rather be with peers so you can get into the school routine. It doesn’t have to mean you’re being irresponsible, it should mean you’re being responsible with a different group of people,” she adds. 

Even the process of finding sublessees was challenging and expensive. Eric Brock Jr., an AU junior and its student government president, says apartment building landlords lacked empathy for students stuck in this situation. “A lot of companies that own large apartment buildings are engaging in what I would describe as price gouging. After the decision reversal, some students wanted to make a second decision and stay at home to save money,” Brock says. “However, let’s say you have four roommates, and one wants to drop. The group not only has to pay a fine for that fourth person to drop, but also pay a fine to find a new person on that lease. If they want to reduce the size of the apartment, that’s an additional fee.” 

University housing offices are willing to provide support for students, though their staff reports that few students reached out. In a statement, Cory Peterson, the director of the Office of Neighborhood Life at Georgetown, reaffirms that her staff “stand[s] ready to advise students navigating housing challenges. We recognize [that] the uncertainty and evolving factors around the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for many students to determine their plans for the fall. According to information gathered by our Office, the vast majority of the now senior undergraduate students had already signed leases before the Spring 2020 term, and very few of those students have reached out to the Office about canceling or subleasing.” Peterson also highlighted other Georgetown-specific resources, such as the Georgetown Student Tenant Association, and general free resources such as the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate. 

Howard University’s Office of Residence Life and University Living, working alongside its Office for Off-Campus Housing and Community Engagement, echoed a similar sentiment, noting they were able to provide “updated housing rental listings and community living tips” for students who returned to the area. The university is also continuing their Bison Care Bags Initiative for the spring semester, which delivers packages of groceries and supplies to students in the area who may be facing food insecurity.

Despite these resources, or potentially due to a lack of awareness for those resources, Brock says students felt trapped by their leases.  “It was incredibly difficult for people to replace roommates, and financial pressures made it so that they were almost strong-armed into keeping their leases and [coming] back to D.C. I think there was a lack of perspective from these housing companies when they were taking advantage of students who were not fiscally prepared to get into a lease,” Brock says.

Georgetown University. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

The lack of returning students has also dramatically impacted commercial life in college neighborhoods, especially at food establishments. In Shaw and on U Street NW, Howard senior Semilore Olatunde has observed dramatic changes in the past few months. “Food and hangout places like El Rey, which Howard students went to practically every weekend, are closing down in October, because of both COVID-19 and the lack of students in the area. There’s a really popular place next to the first-year dorms called Howard China, which is usually really cheap. Normally they’re open until late, but now they’re closed by 11 p.m. and on the weekends, since they don’t have enough people,” he says. “Even at my barber shop across campus, the prices are now double and it’s practically empty.” 

The effect of reduced student populations extends beyond campuses and their surrounding neighborhoods. When Olatunde went to Swahili Village, a Dupont restaurant and Howard student favorite, he realized the impact of slow business. “There were only eight people there,” he says. “The manager actually came to my table, discussing the lack of business and asking us to tell our friends in the area to show up more.” 

In Foggy Bottom and on the GW campus, businesses in on-campus buildings are temporarily closed, including South Block in GW’s Lerner Health & Wellness Center, and some popular off-campus chains like Naf Naf Grill have permanently closed. Some student favorites, however, are investing in marketing to attract those still in the area. “There are a few stores, such as GW Deli and Carvings, which are really big when people are normally on campus but are struggling currently. They’ve been posting on the GWU Facebook group, and have even remodeled, to attract people to come,” Morbahan says. While many stores have reduced their hours to lunch time, GW Deli has extended its hours to attract more students.

Two new restaurants, Mercy Me and Tatte, have opened near Foggy Bottom in recent months, providing new places for students to socialize and work. “A lot of students had work-study jobs and were unable to find those, so these restaurant jobs are sort of filling the gap for work-study jobs,” Morbahan says. 

In Georgetown, the Business Improvement District has made efforts to support outdoor dining for restaurants through streateries. Both students and neighbors have also come together to fundraise for local favorites such as Wisemiller’s Deli, which raised more than $35,000 from a GoFundMe campaign. Despite those minor successes, many Georgetown stores have temporarily lost their most loyal customers. 

Howard University. Photo by Darrow Montgomery. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Campuses themselves are an integral part of D.C. neighborhoods, but are hauntingly empty this semester. Even students who are in town are staying clear. 

“I went to the Yard recently and it’s practically silent. There’s no campus life,” Olatunde says of Howard’s central gathering spot. 

Leaders at GW are encouraging students to stay away unless they absolutely need to be in university buildings. As a result, Morbahan says, “I don’t really go on campus even though I live a minute away.” 

Even though campuses are mostly empty, the relationship between neighbors and students has been a challenge, especially in regard to public health protocols. To build shared trust, Georgetown created a Community Compact, which all students living off-campus in the area were required to sign, that outlines public health expectations for students. 

“We’ve had some tough conversations between the University and long-term neighbors about responsibility and keeping our community safe. The Compact was a really big part of fomenting that trust, since a lot of long-term residents were really worried about the prospect of students coming back, in any numbers. At the same time, I’ve also heard students complain about neighbors who might not be wearing masks. It’s a give-and-take that we will continue to work on,” Landre says. 

Rispoli notes a similar concern in AU and Tenleytown. “There are a few students on campus, but some struggle with wearing masks, which is incredibly frustrating. There’s also a lot of families that hang out or exercise on AU’s campus, including some that are not wearing masks,” Rispoli says.

Students and neighbors are finding ways to support each other in these challenging times. “Though some students working at restaurants have lost those jobs, there is huge uptick in demand for babysitters, and I know many students who are babysitting for various families whose kids and parents are home,” Landre says. 

Both for students in D.C. and at home, rebuilding a sense of community has become one of the most significant challenges. “If your friends are in town, that’s a great safety net, but if they aren’t, you don’t really feel connected to anything. There’s no sense of camaraderie in classes,” Rispoli says. “I’m especially feeling for freshmen who are trying to make friends and form connections in this virtual environment where they can’t be with one another. It’s hard to cultivate community over Zoom.”

In order to foster some sense of community, the university launched the AU Together-Eagles Everywhere program, allowing AU students around the world to connect with others that are located nearby. As described in a statement from AU, “this initiative offers a platform for students to connect with each other and with local alumni in their areas.  It is a dynamic virtual engagement space and allows students to build community across affinity groups and regions.”

Similarly, Howard is running a “Bison Collected: Bison Calling Campaign,” where volunteers from the university community are conducting welfare checks with students throughout the semester. 

As they await a formal announcement regarding the structure of their spring semesters, students are aware that public health precautions must supersede their social lives. “I think a lot of people want to come back, but my priority is student safety, so if that means we have to do another virtual semester to keep students safe, that’s what we’ll have to do. I would love to come back and see my friends, but I don’t want to be responsible for students getting sick as a result of an outbreak,” Brock says.  

“I’m not very hopeful about being safely in person in the spring, but I know GWU is struggling financially like a lot of other schools, so I’m kind of worried they’re going to force everyone back. My hope is they keep prioritizing health and safety over everything else … Even though I’m a senior, I would put human lives ahead of a graduation ceremony,” Morbahan concludes. Shortly after the interview, GW announced plans for a virtual spring semester.