Students sit outside their house near Lehigh campus. There has been an increase in students living off-campus this year. (Jessica Mellon/B&W Staff)

Almost 500 more students are living off-campus this semester compared to fall 2019

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With mostly first-years permitted to live on-campus this semester due to the pandemic, the university has seen an increase in students living off-campus compared to a year ago.

Ozzie Breiner, director of Housing Services, said approximately 2,500 students live in off-campus housing this semester, though the Office of Institutional Research has not finalized its count. Last fall, 2,005 students lived off-campus, Breiner said. 

Breiner said SouthSide Commons, which is considered off-campus housing, is at full capacity with 428 students. 

“We reduced the density within the housing system for COVID-19, limiting bed spaces to six per bathroom,” Briener said. “This has reduced the capacity to one-third of our typical capacity. This reduction will create large revenue losses. We are reviewing the expenses within the system to help mitigate this loss of revenue.”

Currently, 1,051 first-years, 91 upper-class exceptions and 81 Gryphons are living on-campus, amounting to 1,223 students living in university housing, Breiner said. 

Rachel Zale, ‘22, lives in the Polk on Third apartment building, which is owned and operated by Stonebridge Campus Living. 

About two weeks before Lehigh announced that Zale would no longer be able to live in her sorority house, she started looking for off-campus housing. 

“I had a feeling we wouldn’t be able to live on-campus,” Zale said. 

Zale said she called more than 10 landlords in search of off-campus housing, and she tried to get on the waitlist at SouthSide Commons as well. While some landlords didn’t respond to her, others told her they were completely booked until the 2021-2022 school year.  

Zale and her roommates got off the waitlist for the Polk on Third apartment building the first week of August. 

Campus Hill Apartments operates 108 units and 383 beds in Bethlehem, according to Nicole Koenig, their leasing manager.

“Around mid-summer, we saw a spike in demand for off-campus housing,” Koenig said. 

The current vacancy rate for Campus Hill is 2.5 percent, and normally their vacancy rate is around 3 percent, Koenig said. 

James Byszewski, managing partner at Fifth Street Properties, said early on, rumors were swirling about Lehigh’s decision for the fall semester, and in the days leading up to the university’s announcement, his office received hundreds of calls. 

Fifth Street Properties has zero vacancy in its units, Byszewski said.

Byszewski said Fifth Street Properties had spaces they were going to renovate in the fall and keep vacant, but, with the increased demand for student housing, they decided to quickly renovate them in the summer. 

Byszewski said students who live in off-campus housing support tax dollars for the area’s public schools despite not utilizing them. 

“The side effect of COVID is that there are more people off-campus and spending more of their money down in the mom and pop shops downtown versus up on the Hill at the dining halls to a big corporation,” Byszewski said. “If students weren’t around, businesses would be suffering incredibly at this point right now. The students are basically what keeps them alive.”

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