Mold in the air vents, rats in the hallways, mushrooms growing from the walls… These are the conditions that students at Howard University in Washington, DC are imploring their administrators to fix. For nearly a month, they have been occupying a student centre on campus and sleeping outside in tents to protest against poor housing conditions and safety concerns at the university.
Up to 150 undergraduate students have been sleeping at the Blackburn University Center, a student hub and cafeteria at the heart of this historically Black college, since October 12. They’ve rallied on social networks, such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, using the hashtag #BlackburnTakeover to deplore the conditions in campus residence halls.
Students cite issues like mice, bugs and mildew, as well as problems with heating and WiFi access.
At least one student was hospitalised for exposure to mold after moving into a Howard dormitory, and several others report being sick for weeks before discovering mold in their rooms. The university found that 41 rooms on campus, less than 1%, were affected.
Meanwhile, on-campus housing costs students up to $12,000 (upwards of €10,000) per year. The university also receives federal funding and donations, including $40 million in 2020 from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Although seven out of eight residence halls on campus were recently rebuilt or renovated, students complain of ongoing maintenance problems. They’ve launched a petition calling on the university to end its 40-year contract with Corvias, the private company that manages its dormitories.
Students’ demands also include a refund of their housing fees, relocation to safe and free housing and payment for healthcare needs related to the housing conditions. Sit-in organisers have been posting updates and calls to action via an Instagram page called The Live Movement.
On October 26, the university released a statement saying they have placed residence halls under “hyper care”, dedicating staff to conduct regular wellness checks, deep cleans, trainings and check-ins with students who have “reported any signs of mold, mildew or any fungal growth in their rooms”. But students say that dorm rooms are still unlivable, and that solutions offered by the school have been incomplete.
In addition to complaints about on-campus housing, students say those who live off-campus struggle to find affordable housing in the DC area, where a studio apartment averages out at $1,843 (€1590) a month.
These concerns over student housing come amid other issues with Howard University’s administration, which students say make it difficult to have problems solved and access campus resources. In addition to better living conditions, protesting students have asked for a meeting with the university’s president as well as student representation on the board of trustees.
Students participating in the sit-in have also received threats of punishment – or even expulsion – from university officials. They say they won’t end their protest until the university’s president agrees to a public forum open to all students.
Problems with the living conditions at Howard University are nothing new. In 1989, a group of Howard students occupied an administration building, demanding better housing conditions and campus security. Students held similar protests between 2016 and 2018, but they say little has been done to remedy concerns.