Whitman spends $650,000 on off-campus housing renovations

Lena Friedman, Staff Reporter

Renovations on seven Whitman-owned rental properties have largely been completed — costing $650,000 in total, according to Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey. The changes range from functional improvements, like new electrical wiring and heating, to landscaping and fresh paint.

“[M]uch of the work was needed to bring these houses up to our safety standards and to bring them up to similar standards of other Whitman rentals,” Harvey said in an email to The Wire. He added that the projects are being paid for by rent collected from all rental properties. 

The Wire reported in early September that Whitman projects a $19 million loss in revenue for the 2020-21 school year from losses in tuition and room and board. Harvey says the number of houses getting work done was cut in half because of financial strain — deferring work on eight other houses. 

The seven properties the college renovated are 221 Fulton, 1041 E Isaacs, 1043 E Isaacs, 541 E Alder, 531 E Alder, 136 Merriam and 713 E Isaacs.

According to Harvey, the changes vary by house but include adding safety egress windows, new paint, new water and sewer lines, landscaping, roofing and remodeling kitchens and bathrooms.

“[W]e already had committed to these projects with contractors prior to the pandemic and felt they were critical to have the houses be in desired condition for our students moving into them this fall,” Harvey said. 

Illustration by Lily Buller.

Many of the renovations began in the fall and winter months but were halted in line with state-mandated pandemic construction restrictions issued in the spring, according to Associate Controller Laura Nix, who oversees the off-campus rental office. Except for projects still underway in two homes, the college finished all renovations over the summer ahead of students’ arrival in the fall.

“We had it planned so we should have been completed for the majority of them but when COVID-19 hit, we had to cease operations and so we did resume as soon as we could,” Nix said. 

When Whitman announced in July that classes were moving primarily online for the fall semester — limiting on-campus living and discouraging students from returning to Walla Walla students in Whitman-owned off-campus homes were allowed to break their leases or defer until the spring semester. 

“We had some students that couldn’t come back, that needed to get out of their leases early because of COVID-19, or just there was a wide range of different challenges that the off-campus tenants and our office had to deal with as a result of the abrupt COVID-19 closure,” Nix said.

Nonetheless, rental properties haven’t seen a large drop for the term.

Harvey says all homes currently have residents, with 94 students renting compared to 113 last fall.

Six out of the seven renovated properties were purchased by the college in the past two years “as part of a long range goal to have more Whitman owned rental properties available for students,” according to Harvey.

Last fall, The Wire reported on the college’s plans to design and build new on-campus housing for juniors and seniors, addressing apparent shortages in college-owned options for upperclassmen students pre-pandemic. 

Nix said the college is unsure when it will move forward with the remaining off-campus housing renovations that have been postponed.

“We mothballed all of our projects and will be reassessing those, probably not next year, but hopefully in another year,” Nix said. “It all depends on housing [demand].”