QUECHEE — Jenny Engelman likes her condo at Quechee Lakes.
The Dartmouth College psychology major from New York City moved into the four-bedroom rental unit on Sept. 10 with three of her fellow students on a short-term lease over the first term of her senior year.
Although Engelman is taking a full load of pre-med courses, she has set foot on the Hanover campus only for her weekly COVID-19 test. The online classes that Dartmouth has adopted during the coronavirus pandemic allow her to participate from anywhere, Engelman acknowledged, but she said she feels “more productive” in the Upper Valley among her cohort and club volleyball teammates than she would back home studying by herself in New York City.
“I’ve told my parents many times I could not be in a better place this term,” Engelman said last week, noting the amenities at the townhouse include a nearby volleyball court, plenty of running trails and a sauna in her own bathroom, “which is absurd.”
Many Dartmouth students have given names to their off-campus residences. Engelman’s is “Waffle House,” which was inspired by the name of the unit’s wifi network.
Engelman is one of hundreds of Dartmouth undergraduates who can’t move back onto campus because of limits the college has placed on dormitory capacity during the pandemic.
In a normal year, 90% of Dartmouth’s 4,400 undergraduates live on campus, but under the college’s current single-occupancy room policy, dorms can accommodate only 2,300 students.
The vast majority of Dartmouth classes are being conducted online through videoconferencing — even for those living on campus — making it unnecessary for students to be physically near the college.
But many students, desiring to be among their friends and tired of living at home where they had been since the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, have banded together to lease condos, apartments and houses in communities surrounding Hanover, putting more pressure on the Upper Valley’s chronically tight housing market.
Dartmouth estimates that there are 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students residing off-campus during the fall term, according to college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence. (Dartmouth has about 2,200 graduate and professional students, some of whom live in graduate dorms or Dartmouth housing.)
The college didn’t have data to compare the number of students living on/off-campus before COVID-19, Lawrence said, “but in past years, it has ranged from about 400 to 500 undergraduates.”
The rush by Dartmouth undergraduates to secure places to live in the Upper Valley began in July, after the college firmed up its on-campus residency plan that allows each class to live two out of four terms on campus during the 2020-21 academic year.
Freshmen have priority to reside on campus for the fall and spring terms.
Herb Hart, a broker with Quechee Lakes Real Estate Center, said he has placed groups of three to five students into five separate vacation condos at Quechee Lakes. They plan to be there until the semester breaks right before Thanksgiving.
“I was a little concerned for obvious reasons,” said Hart of the initial inquiries he received from students and their parents.
He noted the prospect of Quechee Lakes — with its many older residents — suddenly being overrun by college students during the pandemic at first gave him pause.
But rental agreements include stipulations setting limits on the number of people allowed in the condo and “are pretty restrictive about noise, quiet hours and the number of vehicles,” he said.
That seems to have worked out well.
“I’ve actually had zero complaints. I’ve been pretty happy with how it’s gone,” Hart said.
Hanover, naturally, was the first choice for many students seeking off-campus housing because the campus is within walking distance.
But the lack of available properties has meant that even well-heeled Dartmouth parents can’t find places to buy for their sons or daughters who are attending the college, according to Bob McIntyre with Housing Solutions Real Estate.
“We easily had three to four different parents, all-cash buyers, looking for their kids, but there is a serious inventory imbalance in real estate right now,” said McIntyre, who added that a Hanover condo would cost “in the 300s, plus or minus.”
Hanover’s biggest owner of off-campus student housing, Jolin Kish, said that the influx of undergraduates seeking off-campus apartments has changed the mix of tenants within her portfolio of 600 units.
Normally, Kish said, 200 units are occupied by undergraduates, 200 units by graduate students and 200 units by “young professionals” such as academics, medical residents and researchers.
But about 50 units that would normally be occupied by graduate students have instead been filled by undergraduates, she said, filling a void as some grad students are not residing in the Hanover area during the pandemic.
“Graduate students tend to be solitary, and if there are no classes they don’t need to be here,” Kish explained. “Undergraduates do things in groups. They like to be among their peers.”
The social and peer dynamic is at the heart of why Dartmouth students are choosing to do their long-distance remote learning only a few miles away from the Hanover campus.
With only a limited number of places to rent and so many students looking, some have had to go to the outer limits of the Upper Valley to find a place.
Colin Fennelly, a senior government major from Warren, Vt., said as soon as the college announced in July the on-campus residential plan, that triggered a “surge” in students looking for group houses to rent.
Fennelly and three of his classmates — all friends who had roomed together during their sophomore summer in Hanover — spent three weeks searching on Airbnb and VRBO for an available property.
Finally, after several aborted attempts, they got one: an old four-bedroom farmhouse in Bridgewater Corners, Fennelly related, “with a beautiful backyard that backs up against a creek. It’s a really lovely spot.”
Because campus facilities, including the libraries, are mostly closed, Fennelly said there is rarely a reason to make the trip to Hanover other than to get tested for COVID-19.
“There is nothing really for us there,” he said.
The group spends most of their time at the house studying, although they have gotten out occasionally for outdoor “appropriately socially distanced” meetings with friends, such as apple picking at Riverview Farm and hiking Mount Cardigan.
Fennelly said even though he was having “a lot of great quality time with my family” and Warren is only an hour and 15 minutes from Hanover, he nonetheless said the online program works better when he is studying alongside classmates.
“Just being with others who are in the same boat has increased my productivity from the spring term when I was online from home and has made the work easier,” Fennelly said.
Max Rosenfeld, a sophomore from Altadena, Calif., lives with a group of seven other Dartmouth sophomores all living together in a house in the Eastman community in Grantham.
They are taking classes online from the house and, with the exception of COVID-19 testing and a picnic dinner one day on the Green, are keeping to Eastman. “We’re like a pod.”
Although Dartmouth requires students to follow face-covering and six-feet distancing protocols while on the campus and at Dartmouth facilities and property, the college’s policy is silent on how students are to interact when living in off-campus residences in the community. (Hanover this summer also passed an ordinance limiting gatherings on residential property to 10 or fewer people, not counting the residents themselves.)
Lawrence acknowledged that while Dartmouth policy does not “explicitly reference off-campus housing arrangements, it makes clear … that physical distancing and face covering are critical preventions and expectations for our community.”
“It’s nice to be with friends,” said Rosenfeld, who is leaning toward a philosophy major. “It makes me feel like I’m not at home living in my childhood room.”
Rosenfeld had been at home until he drove across the country with another student from Los Angeles in early September.
The members in their Eastman house go to Hannaford in New London to buy food and take turns cooking dinner — Rosenfeld has tried his hand at stir-fry and spaghetti carbonara, which he says “went pretty well” — and, for recreation on weekends, can take advantage of Eastman’s hiking trails and kayaks on the lake.
“We found a good rope swing,” he said.
Rosenfeld said the name they’ve given their group house in Eastman is the “Roanoke Colony.”
“Somebody named it that in group chat,” Rosenfeld said, when they were trying to find a house. “I don’t know if the allegory completely makes sense. Hopefully, we don’t disappear.”
Contact John Lippman at [email protected]