Ryan Chiao

The number of students living in off-campus housing spiked this year, following the University’s announcement of social distancing guidelines and restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many Yalies held off on planning for the fall semester until president Peter Salovey’s all-school email about the University’s fall plan arrived in inboxes on July 1, pushing their decisions on enrollment and housing until a much later date than usual. After Yale’s announcement that it would welcome only first years, juniors and seniors back to campus in the fall, many students quickly pursued off-campus housing in New Haven. Their reasons for doing so varied, including a desire to save money, set their own standards for coronavirus-related behavior and guarantee that they could live with their friends, after being warned that some housing arrangements made earlier in the spring would be altered. 

In a typical year, 84 percent of undergraduate students live in on-campus housing, or about 5,100 students. This year, only 1,821 students are living on campus, meaning only 36 percent of on-campus housing capacity is filled, according to Yale Director of Media Relations Karen Peart. An additional group of about 1,530 enrolled students are living in off-campus housing, said Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun in an email to the News. Normally, only about 970 students live in off-campus housing. 

That works out to a 79 percent increase in students living off-campus when the estimated 200 unenrolled students who are also living in New Haven are included, according to Peart. The 79 percent increase does not include sophomores who are enrolled and living off campus  in New Haven, because they are categorized by the University as being enrolled remotely. According to Peart, about 15 percent of Yalies declined to enroll this semester, including 30 percent of sophomores. Another 1,700 students are studying remotely.

Local apartment buildings saw changes in demand and business practices due to the Yale reopening plan and the growth of students looking for off-campus housing.

“We saw a crazy surge in calls over the summer,” Edward Anderson, leasing manager at New Haven Towers, said in a call with the News. “Parents were trying to grab anything. It was a hot market after a slow period … It was frantic stuff.”

New Haven Towers is not usually considered an undergraduate address and houses more to Yale New Haven Hospital residents and staff. Elm Campus Partners, which leases Yale-owned apartments on behalf of the University, only rents to Yale affiliates but not sophomores in accordance with Yale College policies. This year, the normal leasing season was extended from May until August as the season was defined by personal circumstances based on travel restrictions and enrollment status. Troy Resch, managing partner of Elm Campus Partners, told the News in an email.

Robby Hill ’24, originally a member of the Class of 2023 who decided to not enroll in classes for the fall semester, is living in New Haven with other Yalies.

“For me, New Haven provided a lot more flexibility in terms of my plans, especially back in mid-June and early July, when I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was doing a leave of absence or trying to take classes,” Hill told the News in an interview. “New Haven seemed like an option where, should I want to do something else like find an internship, I would be able to and, should I want to go back to classes, if things loosened up in the spring or even in the fall, then I would be in close proximity to campus where I would have the option to commute into class and perhaps not face the same sort of stringent social distancing guidelines in a residential college.”

Other students decided to rent houses or apartments with Yale friends elsewhere. Students on financial aid, however, can only receive housing refunds if they are enrolled in-residence in New Haven — meaning that option was only accessible to those who could pay. 

The influx of students living off-campus has raised health concerns due to a fear of student behavior in a city and state that have successfully reduced the number of cases from April highs, in addition to worries that students are worsening an existing housing crisis in New Haven.

In some other cities with significant university presences, the return of students has led to rising COVID case counts, though many of those universities have less restrictive social distancing requirements and less comprehensive testing plans than Yale’s. In many cases, those counts have been driven by off-campus populations less bound by university restrictions. 

At Yale, off-campus students are required to sign and adhere to the same campus compact and behavioral restrictions as on-campus students. Students know, however, that enforcement will inevitably be less effective outside of the residential colleges. And unenrolled students in New Haven are not required to adhere to most aspects of the compact, though they are forbidden from hosting or attending parties with more than ten people. 

After the University’s July announcement, and the subsequent rush by some students to secure off-campus housing, other students took to Twitter, urging their classmates to be thoughtful when considering whether or not to return to the city. 

Some emphasized the potential health risk to New Haven posed by the return of undergraduate students and urged students not to return if they planned on flouting social distancing regulations. Others argued that New Haven’s Black and brown residents, and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, are already at higher risk from the virus than most Yale undergraduates. 

Others students urged their classmates not to sign last-minute leases citing the city’s ongoing housing crisis. 

“Feeling [very] sympathetic to the desire for Yalies to live with their friends off campus in New Haven while also [very] concerned about the consequences of an explosion of Yalies seeking housing on New Haven’s existing housing crisis, one recent alumnus wrote on Twitter on July 1, in a tweet that garnered upwards of 200 likes. 

Aidan Houlihan ’22, who signed a lease in pre-COVID February, decided to live in New Haven though he ultimately chose to take the semester off. One of his housemates is in the same position; the other six are enrolled in-residence. 

Houlihan said that anecdotally, it seems like students who pivoted to living off-campus this summer did so  to escape harsher restrictions on campus, which worries him. 

“Yale can’t police all of Dwight Street,” he said.

Houlihan, a Ecology & Evolutionary Biology major, is working remotely for the Peabody this semester. On the side, he’s been making UberEats deliveries on his bike, working mostly downtown and in the Orange Street and East Rock neighborhoods, typically for several hours a day. 

“The amount of Yale masks I see around people’s necks, walking on the sidewalk, is stupid,” he said, citing clumps of students walking in groups of three or four sans masks.

Sidney Velasquez ’24, a sophomore who is not in New Haven this semester, said she did not want to potentially contribute to rising rent prices for New Haven residents.

“I think especially right now,” she said, “when you have people that are already losing jobs and can’t afford their housing, the fact that a bunch of students are moving into neighborhoods at a higher rate is going to make it even harder.” 

Velasquez added that being from Los Angeles, she has observed similar dynamics in how students at the University of Southern California affect regular residential housing in downtown LA. 

Michael Piscitelli, New Haven’s economic development administrator, said that the city is conducting a survey to understand the market effects of more undergraduates living off-campus but that no data was available yet. He added that the city had worked with commercial landlords to prepare them for additional students.

Mark Abraham, the executive director of DataHaven, a public data nonprofit, said that overall, rents have remained relatively stable in New Haven throughout the pandemic. That does not necessarily mean that there have not been smaller shifts neighborhood-to-neighborhood, he said — but those changes would be hard to measure. And most people move from apartment to apartment every year or two. If students are moving into new areas of New Haven, it’s hard to say where the people they are replacing are living. 

In the spring, Yale will welcome sophomores back to campus, while most first years must return home. 


Olivia Tucker contributed reporting.

Jose Davila currently serves as a Public Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Yale-New Haven Relations as a staff reporter and served as a Managing Editor. He is a senior in Morse College majoring in Global Affairs.