Off Campus Housing Website

A Virginia Tech student browses the VT off campus housing website, Feb. 21 2021

On Nov. 1, university leadership decided against the continued operation of The Gallery, student housing located in Alexandria, Virginia, that undergraduate, graduate and international students alike take advantage of for its proximity to various opportunities in the DC metro area. Some of these opportunities include the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Consortium, the Washington Semester in Global Engagement and Hokies on the Hill. The Gallery will operate through the Spring 2022 semester, after which students will need to find alternative housing.

University spokesperson Mark Owczarski said The Gallery’s inability to turn a profit for the past few years necessitated the closing and that residence and dining, the university’s biggest auxiliary services, must break even according to state law.

“For almost a decade now, The Gallery has lost money,” Owczarski said. “It’s because the demand for it is well below its capacity. And so how to manage that has been a conversation that Virginia Tech, the program up at the WAAC (Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center), and Residence Life has been having for a long time. The thing is, we have to balance that auxiliary balance model with (the) need to help our students. We need to be able to help them find affordable, safe, good places to live.”

According to the page on The Gallery on Housing and Residence Life’s website, the university is currently exploring alternative options for students and “will work closely with the relevant academic departments on their progress.”

Susan Piedmont-Palladino, director of the WAAC, said she initially found out about The Gallery’s potential closing last spring.

“There had apparently been a lot of discussion without us involved, and by us I mean the WAAC,” Piedmont-Palladino said. “I think it was probably in April that the students who lived there got notice that they wouldn't be executing leases for summer or for fall, and that they were supposed to move out by mid-May, barely after the semester ended.”

Piedmont-Palladino said this development was “extremely disruptive” for the students currently housed there, as many of them were planning to remain there during the summer and into the fall semester. There are other concerns as well, particularly the cost of living in Alexandria and the hurdles some international students face without incomes or social security numbers.

“I think the ripple effect is that it affects students in very specific ways,” Piedmont-Palladino said. “International students who are coming for graduate school come with a unique set of challenges finding housing in an area like northern Virginia, which is about 180% more expensive than Blacksburg.”

The WAAC was able to assemble a group to ask the university to extend leases to the end of the academic year, but she said the response was that students could only stay until the end of the calendar year.

“That was also not a great answer, for a couple reasons,” Piedmont-Palladino said. “No one wants to spend their Christmas break moving, and it’s the middle of the academic year. The dilemma is that it casts uncertainty, which then drops the number of people who want to live there, which then proves that there’s no demand, when in fact there is demand. That uncertainty is its own engine of reduction, so we were really in a difficult and stressful time.”

The Nov. 1 decision to keep The Gallery open until the end of the academic year likely came as a relief to students currently residing there and those planning to live there in the spring, but “it does not help (the WAAC) for the summer and the future,” Piedmont-Palladino said.

Community members and architecture colleagues in Alexandria want to be a part of the solution, Piedmont-Palladino said, and she believes students want to be a part of the solution as well. Piedmont-Palladino and her colleagues are planning to put together a group to try to find a way to solve these problems and have been talking to various providers in the area.

“We might not be able to house everyone that way, just like we don’t house everyone at The Gallery — we couldn’t, just like not everyone is housed on campus in Blacksburg,” Piedmont-Palladino said. “But for that set of students where that’s really important, I think it’s crucial that Virginia Tech show that the students in northern Virginia are just as important as the students in Blacksburg, for their well-being and their housing, and for them to be able to put their educations first, not a quest for housing.”

Owczarski said that, rather than a single solution, a combination of solutions would be necessary. Potential solutions could be contracting with apartments and finding extended-stay hotels, given that students’ stays can be anywhere between a week and a year.

“We need to look at multiple options for multiple types of use — a student going up for maybe a five-week-long research class to a semester-long or yearlong endeavor,” Owczarski said. “You know, you can’t necessarily crash on a couch if you’re there for a year. You can’t sign a lease if you only need to be up there for five weeks. So we need multiple options, multiple flexibilities (and) multiple locations to make the right combination, and we’re moving in that direction.”

The Gallery’s website advises students to utilize Virginia Tech’s Off-Campus Housing’s resources to search for housing in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia area until further information is available.

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