The Global SAISer’s Search for a Home

MICHAEL St. GERMAIN, MARYAN ESCARFULLETT and NIMISHA JAISWAL
Editors, SAIS Europe, Nanjing and DC

Students in Bologna, Italy, scan the ads for apartments outside the University of Bologna.
Students in Bologna, Italy, scan the ads for apartments outside the University of Bologna.

Almost the first concern of every incoming SAIS student is the search for housing. Although everyone studies at the same school, students on SAIS’ three campuses in three diverse cities go through different experiences during their days of house-hunting.

Washington, D.C.

For American and international students alike, Washington, D.C. can be baffling.

“This was the tightest rental market I’ve ever witnessed in DC,” one incoming SAIS student said.

To help students, SAIS has engaged an off-campus housing company for the last two years, and Director of Student Life Lisa Kahn and Dean Bonnie Wilson are ready to field questions from students and landlords alike.

However, the housing company’s website posts are limited in price and location and most students choose to tackle the dynamic market themselves through Craigslist, talking to D.C.-based friends and calling up every potential listing they cross on the street.

“Don’t try to do it remotely,” another D.C. student advised. “Come to DC, crash on someone’s couch or book a hotel. Don’t let yourself be pushed around – there are many scams here.”

Apart from the near-impossibility of finding housing remotely, students also struggle with the decision of cost versus distance. While some feel the low rents more than make up for commuting costs, which everyone in D.C. bears, others value living close despite the steep prices in the Dupont Circle area.

Many students have questioned the lack of more comprehensive support from the D.C. campus in the search for housing (i.e., similar a Salvatore-like experience). However, landlords in D.C. have no incentive to list exclusively with a university due to the high turnover of D.C. residents.  This fact makes it impossible to hold apartments for SAIS students over the years.

“You can get lucky and find something instantly and be done, or it could take you a month or longer,” said Kahn. “I would say the informal networking is best. I wouldn’t have found out about my building otherwise.

Kahn continued, “If you have a week in the summer, stay with a friend, look around and figure things out. If you realise how competitive things can be here, and are familiar with the price ranges, it would make it a more seamless transition.”

Bologna, Italy

Another transient city handles the influx of new residents very differently.

“With over 100,000 students coming to Bologna every fall, the city is accustomed to finding students housing on short notice,” said Nelson Graves, Director of Recruiting and Admissions for SAIS Europe. “It is probably easier for SAIS Europe students to find affordable housing quickly than at the other SAIS campuses.”

Additionally, SAIS Europe has a special asset: Salvatore La Ferlita, who has worked with SAIS Europe for almost 35 years as he has helped students find housing – for most, within 24 hours of arrival at campus – and with problems they have throughout the year.

While Salvatore houses more than 80% of the students at SAIS Europe, some students, for the sake of lower rents or of a new experience, choose to find housing on their own. The Italian students and Italian speakers are at a natural advantage. The language barrier, confusing Italian group contracts and irregular billing cycles for utilities – issues that Salvatore resolves for his clients – often deter students from finding housing for themselves.

Yet some intrepid students try to go it alone. Ernestine Roeters van Lennep, a first-year M.A. candidate at SAIS Europe, did it for the experience.

“Though it might have taken me two weeks and several strange encounters with Italian landlords to find the place for me, I now live near Piazza Maggiore – the place to be – and I have roommates to practice Italian with!” she said.

Not all of the students who do it themselves have as much success. Eli Corso-Phinney, a first-year M.A. candidate from SAIS Europe and a long-time resident of Italy and Italian speaker, was evicted from his apartment shortly after moving in.

“After being kicked out, I looked around, and not seeing anything, I went to Salvatore and found a great place,” he said.

Whatever route students take in Bologna, most find Salvatore offers an invaluable service. Given his longevity at SAIS as an institution in and of himself, he was recently asked about succession and the possibility of his daughter taking over the family business one day, to which the ever-mum Salvatore replied simply, “Boh!”

Nanjing, China

The Nanjing campus is the only one which offers on-campus housing.

The on-campus housing is described as affordable but cramped as students in the graduate studies certificate program are required to have  a roommate.

However, the affordability of the housing may be changing. While subsidies from the Nanjing University allow Chinese students to pay less than half of what non-Chinese students pay, this year non-Chinese students faced a 45% price hike in on-campus housing prices.

As a result, affordable off-campus housing close to school has become more attractive for some.

The off-campus housing search in Nanjing can be relatively stress free. Most returning students that moved off campus found housing within ten days through a friend or a real estate agent. Hundreds of pop-up real estate offices charge a small fee for helping students find suitable housing and are specifically geared for the back-to-school influx of new and returning international students.

Ultimately, the decision lies between the convenience of living on campus versus the privacy of having one’s own space. Marta Casey, a SAIS Nanjing student, chose to move off campus to be able live in her own apartment when school was not in session and to pay less.

For more student comments and the results of a cross-campus housing survey, log on to saisobserver.org.