Calvin discusses housing violationsDecember 11, 2009
This fall, residents of 20 houses in Grand Rapids were approached by the police for violations of a city ordinance which states that no more than four unrelated persons may live in the same home. These residents have at least one thing in common: they are all Calvin students.
On Friday, December 4, 2009, the Calvin student life division hosted a meeting to discuss the unusually high number of students living out of compliance with the ordinance. Students, faculty and staff attended the meeting to voice their opinions.
John Britton, associate dean of student development, made it clear that he wanted students to have a voice at the meeting. “I wanted student input,” Britton said. "Listening to students is key.”
The meeting, which lasted four hours, was structured to identify why students live in non-compliance, what effects this has on the local community and how Calvin should respond. “What are we going to do about it?” said Shirley Hoogstra, Calvin vice president for student life. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
More than cheap rent
Students, faculty and staff divided into teams during the meeting to identify possible reasons students live in non-compliance. The groups determined that students violated the housing ordinance for reasons beyond simply an opportunity to split the rent: Students also live "more than four," they said, motivated by friendship, concern for personal safety and to build intentional community.
"I heard some really positive reasons why students live off-campus in non-compliance,” Britton said. “It was interesting to hear that there are reasons beyond just the financial aspect.”
Bob Crow, dean of student development, said there had hardly been more than a single recorded eviction in previous years. He identified that neighborhood complaints had increased, both to the school and to the city, leading to the 20 houses’ evictions.
The attendees of the discussion acknowledged that students are not solely at fault in the matter. They determined that Calvin students needed to be better educated about city housing laws and neighborly etiquette to live in off-campus communities, and that Calvin College could shoulder the responsibility.
"Our whole soul-searching is, ‘What have we done that has been confusing to students?’” Hoogstra said. "The institution has said (living in compliance) is important, but we have given mixed messages by not addressing it with students, by being silent when we know about it.”
Crow said that it is important for students and parents to discuss housing plans together. "The break is a great time to do that,” he said, adding that the college has plans to send out information on off-campus living over the holiday.
Dialogue, discussion, decisions
The student life division reached no final decision about non-compliance at the meeting, but discussion on the issue has not ended. Meetings are planned with other members of the community, including city officials and representatives from local neighborhood associations. “Any time a decision is made, process is important,” Britton said. “I wanted to have a front-end experience, where members of the community— students, faculty and staff—have a voice.”
"We really want to communicate to the students the expectation that they live in compliance,” Britton said. "Once we’ve got some ideas more firmly defined, we’re going to have some forums for more insights and involvement.”
Hoogstra said that Calvin College will not ignore its neighbors and the city as they call for help: “One of Calvin’s core virtues is ‘honesty,’” she said. “It’s not about protecting our reputation. It’s about carrying out our mission.”
~by Cloud Cray, communications and marketing