Whitman’s Residential Identity: Student Housing Responds to Changing Market

Chris Hankin, News Editor

Walla Walla is changing, fast. Between wine, tech and tourism, the valley is seeing a dramatic influx of white-collar folks looking for homes, and the market is responding. Whitman College is hardly immune to these trends, and the school is taking action to better understand the changes and their impacts on Whitman’s identity as a residential college. Whitman Alum & UB reporter Andy Monserud ‘17 recently published a piece in the “Union Bulletin” detailing the changes.

Though most Whitman students either live on campus or in Whitman owned off-campus houses, there is a substantial group of students renting accommodations through local landlords. Many of those landlords own multiple properties close to campus and have relationships not only with their tenants, but with the Whitman community at large. But the rising housing costs in the valley may jeopardize those student leases.

These changes have prompted administration to conduct research about Whitman’s off-campus community. On January 16, Dean of Students Daren Mooko emailed the student body asking students living in off-campus houses to list their addresses. The motivation was twofold: to have access to the information in cases of emergency, but also to get a better sense for the living situation of Whitman’s off-campus community. Data has yet to be published, and though Mooko suspects that off-campus housing costs are increasing, that is anecdotal until further research is done.

“The primary [reason] is safety. That was something that I started to notice back in September, and once I started talking about it with members of the community we began to find these other issues surrounding a dearth of available homes and at that point I began to think that maybe having this data could serve an additional purpose,” Mooko said.

Mooko is in his second semester at Whitman, coming to the college after Chuck Cleveland retired at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. He moved to Walla Walla from Southern California, leaving behind sunny Pomona in lieu of the sprawling hills of eastern Washington. Whitman and Pomona are similar in many ways; small liberal-arts institutions with a strong residential community. One key difference however is housing. At Pomona, 98 percent of the study body lives on campus. This is not purely a cultural difference, cost of living near the LA area is far higher than in Walla Walla. However, changes in Walla Walla’s housing market are forcing Whitman to begin to ask harder questions.

Though Mooko was clear that safety was the primary motivation for collecting information about off campus student housing, he did acknowledge that the College was thinking about what it would mean to have more students living on campus.

“It’s possible, and this is our first step into exploring this question. I think some juniors were very interested [in an on-campus living facility], but there were also a strong number saying they were excited to get off the meal plan, live in the real world and pay rent/utilities.” Mooko continued, “The thinking has always been, before we launch into this huge investment let’s think more and do more research.”

Central to these discussions is Whitman’s identity as a residential College. Whitman prides itself on not only teaching students about physics and political economy, but also cultivating a community based around a shared space.

Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life and housing Nancy Tavelli has spent 10 years in her current position and many more with the College. In that time she has seen the local community change drastically, and like Monserud, she cites the burgeoning tech and wine industries as central to the changes.

“Twenty years into the future it will look even more extreme … I think that in 20 years it will be harder [for Whitman students] to find affordable housing.”

Though both Mooko and Tavelli are committed to data collection before any bigger decisions are made, the College is already laying the groundwork for creating housing for older students to live on campus, though it has been delayed due to construction on other facilities such as the new residence hall and dining hall.

“We had plans with an architect, we designed facilities near Marcus for Junior and Senior living.” Tavelli continued, “our plan was to build just 50 or 60 units. It’s my attitude that if you build them, students will come. Renting from Whitman is really convenient.”

As of yet, there are more questions than answers. It is unclear if the College intends to build facilities to accommodate all juniors and seniors, just a portion or even go so far as to make on-campus living a requirement, though Mooko doubts that. What is apparent is that the Walla Walla housing market is changing, and Whitman will need to adjust.

“Being a residential college means that students are concentrated in and focused on campus … As the Walla Walla Valley continues to change, economic factors may jeopardize that identity at Whitman and the school will certainly have to think hard about that and respond,” Tavelli said.