HBCUs seek innovative ways to address housing insecurity

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) currently experiencing enrollment increases are transforming recyclable building materials and abandoned property into dorms to meet housing demands, NBC News reports.

Decades of underfunding have left HBCUs without sufficient means to upgrade or expand facilities such as campus dorms. In 2020, 55% of HBCU students reported experiencing housing insecurity, and 20% reported experiencing homelessness, according to a report by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University and Virginia Union University’s Center for the Study of HBCUs.

To narrow this gap, some HBCUs are pursuing affordable, unconventional strategies for expanding housing, thanks in part to an increase in federal investments and philanthropic donations.

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Addressing students’ housing needs

At Tennessee’s Fisk University, the total student population has grown from 630 in 2017 to 1,050 in fall 2022—a 66% increase. To meet students’ housing needs, Fisk will transform refurbished shipping containers into apartment-style residential units fitted with private bathrooms, kitchenettes, and showers starting in fall 2023. The residences won’t look like shipping containers from the outside, officials note. Instead, they will be painted in Fisk’s official gold and blue colors and will appear as modular villages surrounded by walkways and gardens, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Jens Frederiksen, Fisk’s vice president for institutional advancement, told Inside Higher Ed that students are trying to get on waitlists for the units. “This is a generation of students that loves innovation, sustainability, thoughtful living, micro-living—all those things resonate with this demographic.” Officials say the project will cost $4 million, 40% less than the same number of beds in traditional dorms. The units will help house students while the university builds a new, traditional dormitory that won’t be completed until 2024 at the earliest.

Related: Book explores legacy of inequitable investment in Black colleges as advocates urge greater federal funding >

The non-profit organization Student Housing of America (SHA) recently launched its HBCU Healthy Housing (H3) Initiative to create safe, affordable, and high-quality student housing at HBCUs across the country. Project sites include Louisiana’s Southern University and A&M College, where they are using abandoned property as space for campus residences. Beyond providing affordable housing, the organization is focused on addressing food and broader basic needs insecurity among HBCU students, SHA President Shaun Wiggins tells NBC News. “Students need more than just affordable housing,” he explains. “We want to take a holistic approach. Housing is just one part.”

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