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Reality of housing instability for Aggies

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Photo by Austin Nguyen

Student housing located right outside off campus boundaries on George Bush Drive. 

Since 2021, more college students are reporting housing insecurity like couch surfing with friends, homelessness or not being able to meet rent or mortgage requirements, according to a #RealCollege Survey report. Between inflation and lease restrictions, more and more students are struggling, according to the report. Texas A&M students are faced with the same issues occurring across the nation. 

One such student at A&M is university studies junior Jeremy “Jay” Rodriguez. Given his own struggle with housing, Rodriguez said many students have trouble asking for assistance.

“Homelessness is kind of embarrassing, so I would imagine that those struggling are probably ashamed of it or embarrassed to speak up and speak out,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said he went from couch surfing to living comfortably. While staying on his friend’s couch for a whole semester, Rodriguez learned to swallow his pride and ask for help. He said by the grace of God he is no longer homeless and now lives in an apartment, being able to pursue his education wholeheartedly instead of struggling with homelessness. 

“It was tough living out of my car,” Rodriguez said. “I had a duffle bag with eight outfits [and] two pairs of shoes.”

With a hard upbringing living in a single-parent household, Rodriguez said he doubted he would ever attend college. When he graduated in the top 10% of his class, his counselor encouraged him to attend a university. However, entering his freshman year at A&M, Rodriguez said he saw college as a party scene and started to hit rock bottom.

“I failed all of my first semester classes and literally Q-dropped all of them,” Rodriguez said.

When he couldn’t find a place to live, Rodriguez said he stayed in his mom’s garage in Hearne while still attending school, but when his mom kicked him out, he was out of luck. 

“I would rotate [between] friends’ houses for two weeks after that, and live out of my duffle bag because I didn’t want to tell anybody that I needed somewhere to stay,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s story is not uncommon, as outlined in the #RealCollegeSurvey report. 

Respondents that reported housing insecurity were around 52% at two-year institutions and 43% at four-year institutions, according to the survey report. One in four students said they struggle to meet rent or mortgage payments, out of the 62% of college students surveyed over the course of a year in a different study, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One reason housing insecurity has reportedly increased is due to the “no more than four” housing law across the nation, or residential occupancy overlay, College Station City Council Place 4 representative Elizabeth Cunha said. The law states no more than four unrelated persons can live together, Cunha said.

“There’s a lot of pressure on [College Station Code Enforcement] to find houses that are not living under that four-person threshold,”  Cunha said.

As part of The Fair Housing Act, authorized by the United States, the “no more than four” rule has existed for quite some time, allowing — but not requiring — property owners to place limits on the number of unrelated occupants. Not only is this a rule in parts of College Station, where some neighborhoods recently instituted restricted occupancy overlays, or ROOs, but is enforced across the country as well. It was originally created to prevent boarding houses and overcrowding in neighborhoods, Cunha said. 

“The reason the community wants the ‘no more than four’ rule is because they don’t want to live by students,” Cunha said. “It’s a way to lessen the amount of students that live in your neighborhood. There’s a lot of economic discrimination when you set up a system like that.”

City of College Station Director of Community Services Debbie Eller said their enforcement has increased over the past six months.

“Previously we worked on a complaint basis, but now we’ve been asked to proactively enforce that,” Eller said.

The local government enforces this rule by knocking on students’ doors and asking how many people live there and how they are related to each other, Cunha said. 

“I think it’s creepy,” Cunha said. “I think it’s government overreach and it causes more stress than it needs to.”

While working with the city council, Cunha said oftentimes she is alone in these opinions. 

“There’s a lot of economic discrimination when you set a system up like that,” Cunha said.

Not only do individuals come and knock on doors, but citizens will help enforce this rule by taking pictures of the number of cars parked outside of houses and presenting them in council meetings, Cunha said. 

“I have so many issues with it,” Cunha said. “The idea to enforce this is they have people come and take pictures of how many cars are outside houses at any time of the day, including all hours of the night.”

Certain citizens sometimes present over 300 pictures at one time, the reason being that the community wants to further enforce the “no more than four” rule is because they don’t want to live by students, Cuhna said. 

“When you move to a city whose name is ‘College Station,’ you might expect to live by college students, and the closer you live to the university, the more you might expect that,” Cunha said.

In Bryan and College Station, neighborhoods can now choose to limit housing to have no more than two unrelated persons living together, using a ROO. 

“The city has a ROO, restricted occupancy overlay,” Cunha said. “A neighborhood can come together, and as long as they get [more than 51%] of signatures on a petition, they can change the rule to no more than two.” 

Although being on the council can face many challenges such as these, Eller said it is her job to be a professional and help the council put policies in place. The council wants students to know the ramifications and to be able to recognize this is an illegal activity in order to avoid it, she said.

“It’s a really challenging topic because we all understand why it’s happening, but who should be punished for that?” Eller said. “Unfortunately, students are having to move in the middle of a semester because they’re learning about this.”

Local landlords are also being affected by this government action. Elianor Vessali, a managing partner for Vessali Family Ltd., and landlord to many students, has been accused of criminal activity by neighborhood residents, Vessali said. 

“There is a specific group of residents who believe a lot of landlords are breaking that rule,”  Vessali said. “That group of residents have gone on record at city council [meetings] and called us criminals because they believe we are renting more than four.”

Vessali believes the system is flawed because there is not any actual proof of breaking this law. Cars parked outside someone’s house do not prove anything, she said. 

“It’s unfortunate because certain properties are specifically being targeted and I do believe landlords and tenants are being harassed,” Vessali said. 

Residents are concerned about property taxes because the values of homes around them are increasing, she said. They believe it’s increasing because of the “no more than four” rule, but in her view, it’s due to wealthy alumni buying houses in the neighborhoods, which pushes the values of taxes up, Vessali said. It’s not the rental homes causing this issue, she said. 

Not only do the recent efforts of the local government add stress to struggling students, but the rise of inflation is also something to take into account, Vessali said. 

Facilities and apartments are also being sold to developers, limiting the number of housing for students because of inflation, Charles Coats, director of Homebuyer Services at B/CS Habitat for Humanity, said.

“It could cause students to go elsewhere to Bryan or other places that maybe they wouldn’t have to otherwise,” Coats said. “This then takes housing stock away from some of these families that quite honestly don’t make enough to be able to afford something else.”

The reality is that these certain policies could in turn affect low-income families as well, Coats said. The Bryan-College Station homeless count in both low-income families and students has increased over the past few years, he said. Additionally, inflation is going up rapidly while wages are going up slowly, Coats said. 

“All of us can be part of the problem or part of the solution,” Coats said. 

Rodriguez said the only reason he was able to escape his couch-surfing life was through the A&M Department of Student Affairs. Without asking for help, he said he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“Yeah, it made me think: how many kids are actually struggling that don’t know [how] to reach out to these resources or the staff at A&M to receive that help?” Rodriguez said. 

College Station, as well as A&M, have resources available to all students in need of assistance. These resources include contacting A&M’s Department of Student Affairs and reaching out to the local government to ask for tenant-based rental assistance.

Awareness of the growing homeless population of low-income individuals and college students is something that is really important, Eller said. Students need to know the options available to them and that it’s okay to ask for help, Rodriguez said. 

“They can’t reach out for help because it’s seen as weak or embarrassing,” Rodriguez said. “It goes against everything the world says about pride and ego.” 

Without his faith and help from others, Rodriguez said he would have never been able to get to where he is today.

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