If the coronavirus pandemic has been the darkest of dark clouds for American businesses, one local business might find a bit of a silver lining … apartment landlords in Evanston.

Northwestern University is waiving its requirement that first and second year students live on-campus, and switching most dorm rooms from double to single occupancy.

But the roughly 4,000 students who normally live on campus still have to live somewhere, and presumably the closer to campus the better.

A few blocks from campus, at the Park Evanston high-rise, “our phones have been ringing all day,” according to Leasing Agent/Marketing Specialist Jessica Spencer.  While this is normally a busy time of year for the 283-unit building, with university graduates moving out and new tenants signing up, Spencer says many of the increasing contacts now are due to the change in NU dormitory rules.

While some students may double up with a roommate they’ve chosen in advance, Todd Adams, NU Associate Vice-President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students says single rooms are expected to be the “predominant” form of on-campus housing. 

Some students may decide to stay home. Northwestern is encouraging students from the Chicago area to “consider residing at their place of residence if their situation allows.”

Still, with less dorm space available, more students than in previous years will likely be searching for apartments. How many, at this point, is still unclear.  Al Belmonte, of Wesley Realty, says students and their families are “just now absorbing the fact” that the NU housing policy has changed. Wesley has about 800 apartment units in town, and Belmonte says “I do expect people to start looking very quickly.”

Belmonte has a ballpark guess of 400 to 500 apartments community-wide which might go to Northwestern students who otherwise would live on campus this fall. Right now it’s just a guess, but the University is asking students to respond by July 5 if they plan to live on-campus, off-campus, or at home, so more specifics should be known soon. 

There are plenty of variables, however. For example, it’s unclear how many international students might not attend, either due to travel restrictions, or because they don’t want to journey thousands of miles to take classes on a computer. University Vice-President Adams says “the vast majority of students will have a remote component of their classes, if not receiving instruction that is entirely remote.”

Another variable; the university itself may rent off-campus housing and make it available as if it were a dorm. In a housing website FAQ, NU says “residential services expects to bring additional rooms and buildings online to maximize capacity in a single room occupancy framework.”

Besides landlords, there is another group of Evanston businesses which might benefit from the university’s new dormitory rules — restaurants. Gina Speckman, executive director of the North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau says with dining hall restrictions in place, she thinks more students will be “seeking dining opportunities in Evanston.

“That is just what,” she says, “I am hearing from other cities/campuses.” Speckman says activity restrictions on campus might also lead students to look in town.

Whatever university housing does turn out to be this fall, it will be far different than years gone by. Face coverings, social distancing, and new health and safety guidelines will be required. Overnight guests will be “strictly prohibited,” according to NU’s website. And here’s something no one ever would have predicted just a few months ago: “It is possible … specific showers or stalls may be assigned” in bathrooms.

But there’s only so much even the most vigorous safety measures can do. NU is telling students and parents that “despite out best efforts to control the spread of the virus … the University cannot guarantee a virus-free environment.  Every student and family should consider this as they decide to return to campus.”

Students will be able to opt-out of dormitory contracts by Aug. 1.  Classes are scheduled to start Sept. 16.  Northwestern says room assignments will be sent by Aug. 7 but clearly a lot has to be figured out in a short period of time. “We all operate,” the university’s web site states, “in a climate of uncertainty.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Leave a comment

The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *