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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Northfield Option in decline

<ir="ltr">When Cassat and James opened their doors to slightly under 230 lucky students in the fall of 2009, the available number of spots for students living off-campus (Northfield option) decreased. In the decade prior to 2009, the average number of students housed in Northfield option was 191. But in the six years since, the average number of students off-campus declined to 87, less than half the average of the previous decade. We interviewed Residential Life at both Carleton and St. Olaf, students living off-campus, landlords and community members to understand Northfield option and the reason for its sharp decline.

ResLife Process

“Our number of spots for Northfield option is strictly the [enrollment] numbers,” said Andrea Robinson, director of  ResLife. Robinson explained the process with the hope of countering the rumors about why less Northfield options spots will be available for the 2016-2017 school year.

It is Robinson’s job to fill 99 percent of the rooms available on campus. The extra one percent remain open for emergency housing. In other words, if there is on-campus housing space for 500 students, 495 students must live on campus. The remaining group can participate in Northfield option. Robinson attributes the Northfield number fluctuations primarily to class size shifts, as 99 percent of the rooms on campus must be filled, regardless of how many students are enrolled in the College. Another factor contributing to the fluctuation is building updates and construction. The number of rooms vacant on campus changes frequently, and an addition of a new dorm, like Cassat in 2009, raises the number of students needed to occupy 99 percent of the rooms, decreasing those allowed to live elsewhere. After careful calculation, ResLife releases an approximate number of Northfield option spots available for each upcoming year. The rising seniors can then fill out an application to live off campus. Priority is given to those with the best draw numbers.

This process differs at St. Olaf. According to Pamela McDowell, director of St. Olaf residential life, some students are automatically granted off-campus status if they desire it. This includes married students and students of at least 23 years old at the beginning of their senior year. Then, anyone else that wants to live off campus gets their names put into a random number generator to determine priority. This year, McDowell had to cut down the number of spots available because overall college enrollment went down, resulting in a waiting list for the first time in several years. “Students are hoping we have another large first year class to take up more campus living spaces,” she said. This would give more upperclassmen the opportunity to live off campus.

Some St. Olaf students start contacting landlords in October. Similarly at Carleton, students with good lottery numbers must contact landlords early. “Nothing is through the school. We had to apply for Northfield option, and in order to get approved for that, you have to get a lease and prove you have been talking to landlords,” said Caroline Roberts ’16, who is currently living off campus. “Seniors just figure it out.”

“It’s so stressful. There are people locking down leases the night when the numbers come out,”said Porter Truax ’16, another student living off campus. Despite this initial rush among the top draw number holders, Truax has thoroughly enjoyed living off-campus. “I love it. I didn’t realize how unhappy I was living on campus until I lived off campus,” he said.

Pros and Cons

Northfield option has some definite benefits. Most commonly,  the allure of independence appeals to upperclassmen students. “Cooking for yourself, having all your own dishes, and being in charge of everything in your life is cool,” said Truax.

Another advantage is purely economic. “It’s hard to know exactly how much money is saved because it is by month, but also just being off board saves a lot of money,” said Roberts. Truax discussed saving over $2,000 for the year. “I think I might save more than half on room and board honestly.” Robinson agrees with students that Northfield option can be less expensive than living on campus. “I absolutely think you could make Northfield option less expensive,” but she adds a caveat. “I also think it could quickly become more expensive. It depends on how you want to do it.”

Northfield option is, in many ways, riskier than living on campus. According to Robinson, students have asked ResLife in the past for facilities to come and conduct air tests or fix a broken door hinge. Some students even return hoping to live back on campus, generally after roommate disagreements.

“As soon as there are questions or issues, they come back to us,” said Robinson. Yet, the legal contracts of the lease and the agreement signed by students in Northfield option to complete housing without any involvement from the college limits ResLife’s possible actions. Some landlords will help Carleton students and some more than others. Shane Austvold, a landlord, recalls teaching students how to fix a broken circuit breaker a few years ago.

Another possible disadvantage of Northfield option is the ability to disconnect from the campus. While Truax spends most of his day on campus for classes or work, he said  “you don’t feel as connected to the broader campus community.” This is partially attributed to not having lunchtime conversations at Sayles or late-night floor lounge hangouts. Yet, most students live within a few blocks and stay relatively connected to the campus community.

On the short walk to Northfield option residential spaces from main campus, the surroundings shift from academic buildings to ordinary houses. “The thing about Northfield option that I think gets the College really lit up about it is that the neighbors hate it. The whole town hates Northfield option,” said Truax.

Community View

When asked about the community’s views as a part of the decline of Northfield option, Robinson cited a long history. “There was a time frame when Northfield option numbers were 100 plus, 200 plus. At that point, I certainly think there were some struggles with the relationship between the College and the nearby neighborhood largely because of Northfield option. I think that has shifted drastically, and I see and hear very little about it honestly.”

The construction on Cassat and James started in spring 2008 and ended in summer 2009, occurring after these critical discussions in the Northfield community about Northfield option.

On the website discussing the opening of Cassat and James, councilwoman and member of the Northfield Eastside Neighborhood Association, or NESA, Suzie Nakasian is quoted as saying, “We asked Carleton to reduce the number of students living in the neighborhood, and it responded by building two multi-million-dollar halls on the campus’s southeast border. That is significant and has been very well received by the community.”

According to St. Olaf director of residential life McDowell, St. Olaf experienced similar problems with the surrounding community. However, due to the recent construction of academic buildings, there were no funds for new residential halls. “About 10 years ago, this was much more of an issue with the townspeople in the entire Northfield city. I think it is more on your side. Carleton built. We attacked it from different points of view. We went after more of cooperating with landlords,”  said McDowell.

Unlike the hands-off approach of Carleton’s Northfield option, St. Olaf considers landlords partners in creating a safe and respectful living situation and their Residential Life Office is much more involved in resolving conflicts that arise in off-campus housing. McDowell thinks this approach worked pretty well. “I think any time your neighbors find you to be sincere and responsive that you are going to be able to build those relationships.”

Community members echo McDowell’s and Robinson’s assessment of the situation. Bardwell Smith, an emeritus professor of Carleton and Northfield resident, described the tensions as “dissolved” after the building of James and Cassat. In the past, Jerri Hurlbutt, Chair of NESNA,  said they had problems with ‘absentee landlords’ and rundown buildings being rented to students. Most of those buildings have seen been torn down and rebuilt according to Hurlbutt. Some community members still do not like the sometimes loud parties in off campus houses, loud groups of people walking from downtown Northfield to campus late at night or, more recently, wishes Carls would pay more attention crossing the street to Weitz. Hurlbutt wished students and community members could interact more yet mentioned the obstacles on both sides. Students mainly busy with schoolwork, community members mainly busy with jobs and kids.

Landlord Views

The landlords interviewed all spoke positively about Carleton students as renters. Carls paid their rent on time, they caused few complaints and rarely did damage to properties. As for fluctuations in Northfield option, landlords have generally adjusted to it. Shane Austvold did not rent to Carleton students for a couple of years after the building of Cassat and James. “I lost all of my students for a number of years, and once you get off cycle with the students, it’s extremely hard to switch back over because when you’re renting to non-students, it’s different timings, different availability, etc.” While he could place a house back up for rent, Peggy Sheldon who has rented to Carls for slightly over 10 years sold a house this year that she used to rent “because there were not students that were given permission to live off campus”.Unfortunately for landlords who want to rent to college students, both the St. Olaf and Carleton residential life offices acknowledge that the number of Northfield option spots will not increase dramatically anytime soon.

Looking Forward

The future of course remains uncertain. The Carleton administration will almost certainly not build any new residential halls in the next 10 years because the College is currently expanding the science complex and the Weitz Center. Yet, after the highest average yearly enrollment in Carleton’s last decade, the College’s enrollment declined slightly this year. And, with a decline in enrollment, ResLife will have slightly more spots on campus for students and will undoubtedly have less need for Northfield option, in order to keep one percent of spots open for emergency housing.

All in all, Northfield option will continue to house Carleton students for a few years to come. As Truax said, “We are still living in the Carleton world. It is just a little bit on the edge.”

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