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House Hunters: The search for off-campus living amid a pandemic

Melissa Browne, Sarah Hall, Erin MacInnis and Olivia Colton — all Westminster College students — sit on their front doorstep Oct. 16. Browne said an important factor in deciding on where to live was having roommates “she can trust.” (Melissa Reeves)

Two college students, two states, one realtor.  

Anna Zielinski’s summer was anything but normal. After being granted an off-campus exemption, she and her roommate began their search for a place to live. 

They enlisted the help of a local realtor to help them land a place to live as they were out-of-state during the summer. 

The Westminster College sophomore accounting major turned into a house hunter — scouring the Sugar House neighborhood for a place to live. 

On-campus living is required for first-year and sophomore students. But as students opt to live off-campus, the hunt for housing begins. 

“[We] found our place really in a rush,” Zielinski said. “We applied for off-campus housing really late and looking back, we got really lucky.” 

Zielinski lives in a duplex within walking distance to Westminster’s campus. Right in the heart of Sugar House, it’s surrounded by duplexes and apartments filled with the neighborhood’s charm. 

When searching for a place to live, Zielinski said there were many factors in deciding on where to live — whether the location was on-campus or off-campus housing. 

“We were supposed to live on campus at Westminster on The Draw, but we applied to get off campus,” Zielinski said. “We looked at many aspects like cost, COVID-19 [considerations] and other things.” 

Considering COVID-19

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic affected the living decisions of students and housing staff in the Salt Lake City area. 

According to Jess Sweitzer, director of residence life at Westminster, the reduced capacity of housing has redefined the meaning of “full” housing. 

“Because of the pandemic, rooms that would normally be double occupancy are now single occupancy,” Sweitzer said in an email to The Forum.  

The 2020-21 school year has brought changes to housing for the 410 students who live on campus. In addition to the newly-defined occupancy rules, Carleson Hall has been converted to COVID-19 testing and isolation — which has reduced overall housing capacity. 

“We have been able to comfortably and safely accommodate all of our residential students along with those needing to quarantine or isolate,” Sweitzer said. 

The University of Utah also reported a lower number of residential students living on campus. Unlike Westminster, the U does not have an on-campus housing requirement for undergraduate students this semester. 

Lexie Maschoff, assistant director for communications and assessment, said the U has about 3,500 students living on campus for the Fall 2020 semester. 

“This number is lower than the 2019-20 academic year and is lower than our full capacity,” Maschoff said. “This is due both to some students choosing not to live in the residence halls in the era of COVID-19 and also because of the quarantine/isolation rooms that have been held off for temporary use of students who become ill or exposed to COVID-19.” 

It’s unclear how many Westminster students have opted for off-campus living, as the college does not publicly provide statistics on granted or denied off-campus exemptions.

Making a College House a Home

Westminster College student Anna Zielinski and her roommate Brooke O’Donnell sit outside of their Sugar House duplex Oct. 16. Zielinski said the process of finding an off-campus house was made more stressful this year due to living out-of-state amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Courtesy: Maddie Harper)

For some students, the search for housing was made easy because of inherited living spaces. For example, the Sugar House duplex has doubled as a family heirloom. 

Junior neuroscience major Melissa Browne said her older sister lived in the same house two years ago. After her sister moved out, a friend of Browne’s moved in. 

“Once they moved out, they referred us to the landlord,” Browne said. 

Browne’s duplex sits close to campus, nestled in a quiet neighborhood and perched on a corner. The house is so close to campus in fact, the newly installed lights on Dumke Field can be seen from the driveway. 

Browne said she is currently living with three other Westminster students. 

“I also wanted to make sure I had a house with roommates I can trust,” Browne said.

Prior to living out of campus housing, Browne said she lived at The Draw for the 2019-20 school year. When she decided to find a place of her own, she knew exactly what she wanted. 

“I wanted more of a home feeling in my house and I did not experience that with Westminster housing,” Browne said. “I wanted to have my own place away from school where I can make my own decisions.”

On Your Own

Some students took the opportunity to venture off. 

Megan O’Dell is on her own. Well, not quite, but just enough. 

The junior who recently transferred to the University of Utah began her college career at Westminster. While there, she lived in campus housing in Olwell Hall and The Draw. 

O’Dell moved into her Sugar House one-bedroom basement apartment this summer. Once COVID hit, O’Dell was in need of housing and said she needed to find something quickly. 

“I wasn’t able to stay on campus anymore and I wasn’t able to go back home,” O’Dell said. “So I needed to find a place to live.”

She found her apartment through a friend who was living there prior to O’Dell. When her friend moved out, O’Dell was recommended to the landlord and the rest is history. 

A basement apartment might seem unconventional for college housing, but O’Dell said she has taken a liking to it. 

“I’ve enjoyed being able to have my own true space and be able to decorate it and organize it the way I want,” O’Dell said. 

Although she filled her space with her belongings and decorated to her style, there was one surprise. 

“[Living off campus] has taught me that furniture is really expensive and it’s not always easy to maintain a clean home sometimes,” O’Dell said. 

In addition to the challenge of keeping her home clean, O’Dell said living off-campus has taught her the difficulties of cooking for herself. 

“I always forget to go to the grocery store and after a long day I hate having to make dinner,” O’Dell said. “I miss having the dining hall right there.”

Even though living alone and off-campus does not afford the same amenities as on-campus living, she said she is glad she moved out of school housing. 

“I am very happy with my decision,” O’Dell. “It’s given me a great sense of independence.” 


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Melissa Reeves is a senior communication student. She is a Pacific Northwest native who moved to Utah to avoid the rain. She thoroughly enjoys overpriced coffee and long walks around her college housing. When she's not scouring Salt Lake City for gluten-free food, you can find her on the lacrosse field.

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