Worrying about an internet outage just as you're about to submit a term paper. Returning from a day of classes to an 85-degree apartment and having to run fans in the middle of winter. These are just a few of the inconveniences Eastern Michigan University (EMU) Student Body President Auryon Azar experiences living in EMU's on-campus apartments.
"Sometimes it's hard to get work done," Azar says.
However, an EMU initiative called Welcome Home 2025 is working to update campus housing stock, making sure on-campus dormitories and apartments meet the needs of today's students, by 2025. EMU Vice President for Communications Walter Kraft calls Welcome Home 2025 "a transformative project" for housing stock that can date back to the '70s.
"There are issues with heating and cooling and some of the things you'd find in older buildings, because that's just the way it used to be. But that isn't the way it has to be," Kraft says. "We're renovating every single residence hall on campus except for one, and the only reason for that one is that we just remodeled it in 2018. Every other room in every other residence hall is being upgraded."
EMU Student Body President Auryon Azar.
Azar says the project is important both for students' academic success and mental health.
"In general, how clean a space is and how nice it looks, and even the structural elements of your housing space, has an impact on our mental health and well-being," Azar says. "I know students who moved into dorms on campus and discovered some sort of health and safety hazard and had to relocate. That's not desirable at all and gets in the way of academics. The last thing I want to think of while I'm trying to succeed academically is worrying about whether the housing the university has given to us is safe."
Azar says he supported Welcome Home 2025 both as a student and as a representative of student government.
"There's an overwhelming need to update our housing, because it's connected with so many elements of student success," Azar says. "And, during COVID, our rooms were our classrooms."
The need and the vision
"What you saw on our campus two years ago is not going to be the campus you see in 2024 and 2025," Kraft says. "We're getting rid of older stock, and building entirely new buildings, including one right next to the student center, overlooking the pond. That's going to make that whole area of campus so vibrant."
Kraft says that, despite the perception that EMU is a "commuter school," there are still a "substantial number of students who live on campus."
"The scope of the project is more than 3,000 beds," Kraft says. "We can't let that housing stock deteriorate for those students who want an on-campus experience."
Students and staff have had multiple opportunities to give feedback on the plan. Kraft says more than 2,000 students, as well as more than 100 faculty and staff, were involved in surveys and focus groups.
EMU Vice President for Communications Walter Kraft.
"The whole time we were rolling out ideas, we were getting input and making sure we were going to design something and develop a new residence hall experience that met student needs now and hopefully into the future," Kraft says.
Cedrick Charles, an EMU junior and vice president of the student body, says renovations to residence halls will also be important for social reasons.
"In a lot of the focus groups, we focused on how to implement more social aspects into housing," Charles says. "In a lot of these first-year [residence halls], there is no central lounge where students can congregate and socialize."
New residence halls will have lounges, and some will have other amenities like podcasting or greenscreen rooms.
EMU Student Body Vice President Cedrick Charles.
Student feedback also suggested that there was a need not just for updated dormitory-style housing but also more on-campus apartments. Kraft says the typical residence hall setup, with two beds to a room and a shared bathroom, is a good fit for some students, but surveys and focus groups showed a strong interest in on-campus apartments.
"I like the control I have over the space," Azar says of living in an on-campus apartment.
According to the project website
, EMU administration considered remodeling the university's current housing stock gradually, but that could mean some older buildings wouldn't see upgrades for more than a decade. Housing costs are only going to increase, so doing the remodeling all at once seemed like the right financial move.
EMU signed a lease agreement with a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity that will make payments on the bonds for all student housing facilities. Development company Gilbane will coordinate the financing and oversee the construction work. Gilbane will also receive a fee to manage the properties.
Charles says student conversations about the initiative centered on how old and sometimes unsafe some of the dormitories and campus apartments were. However, students were invited to talk with Gilbane about their concerns. Both Azar and Charles say they were glad that Gilbane listened to student concerns.
New Lakeside Apartments under consrtruction at EMU.
"Gilbane and the university were pretty good about including student voices," Azar says. "In the focus groups I was a part of, we identified things to them that shifted their perspective on what's best for students. There's been a pretty robust level of student involvement."
The project isn't just about making campus attractive to students. It's also about equity.
"About 27% of students living in residence halls on campus are African-American, and our population campus-wide is about 17-18%," Kraft says. "So, it's a matter of equity and creating housing that all our students deserve."
Charles says the equity issue extends beyond race, though. He says the "affordable housing aspect was important to us." He also says accessibility for students with disabilities and including housing for families is also important.
"We're a little more non-traditional on campus, with the average age being 26, not the typical 18- to 22-year-olds," he says. "Ensuring family housing is being secured is something I hope the university focuses on more."
Progress so far
The timeline for the project
was ambitious but is on track right now. Kraft notes that the university expects to meet its deadline of finishing construction and remodeling by the beginning of the 2024-2025 school year. And three buildings currently "offline" for renovations will reopen even sooner, in time for fall semester this year.
Azar says students were worried about the projected timeline.
"But they're moving very efficiently, so that's reassuring," he says.
Charles says current construction hasn't interrupted campus life much.
"They were really effective with putting some buildings offline and then choosing to construct others. They were able to juggle that all really effectively," he says.
Auryon Azar and Cedrick Charles in front of the future New Lakeview Apartments at EMU.
Azar says that if he was in EMU administrators' position, he probably would have made the same decision to work with Gilbane. However, there was some student concern about how the public/private partnership will work.
"Just representing students, there were concerns that the partnership we've chosen, because of past history, might lead to adverse effects," Azar says.
He notes that the decision to privatize parking on campus has not been popular with students, for example, adding that parking is more difficult than ever since that decision was made in the 2014-2015 school calendar. He says Gilbane did a good job of listening to student input, but he still has some concerns.
"One of my biggest reservations is making sure the deal we worked out gets implemented, not just on paper," Azar says. "I want interaction with students to be equitable and not lead to anything we're not expecting."
New Lakeside Apartments under consrtruction at EMU.
He says management companies are focused on the "bottom line," so the student government will watch to make sure that buildings are managed and maintained in line with student needs.
Kraft says the university administration tried to ensure success by investigating the local housing market and using a national developer that has done similar projects.
"They're locked into ... how to make sure we're on the leading edge where students want to be today and into the future," Kraft says.
More information about the timeline, financing, and other details of the Welcome Home 2025 project are available here
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.