The crossroads of campus and community

October 14, 2022
by xavier stevens

The graduate housing project blurring the lines between Emory and Druid Hills could signify future change

When Samantha Lanjewar (24G) wakes up in her North Decatur apartment, the first thing she does is check the shuttle schedule. She needs to figure out if she can walk or run to her shuttle stop about 15 minutes away. Today, Lanjewar is jogging and slips onto the shuttle for a ride to Asbury Circle to begin another day in her lab at the Laney Graduate School.

 During her five years as a graduate student, Lanjewar has lived in three off-campus apartments. The North Decatur Park Summit Apartments is the easiest commute she has had so far. Her previous home at Calibre Woods wasn’t on an Emory University shuttle line and forced her to walk 40 minutes up and down the valley on Houston Mill Road to get to campus.  

“I’ve learned to always stay close to Emory because traffic and parking is insane,” Lanjewar said. “I know some of [my classmates] have to live outside the perimeter because it’s so much cheaper, but they have to drive 30 or 45 minutes to a Park & Ride just to take the bus to Emory.”

Lanjewar is the former president of the Laney Graduate Student Council (LGSC) and advocated for the graduate student housing project currently under construction across from Druid Hills High School. The new residential halls are set to be occupied by students in 2024, but not finished until 2027, with two new buildings and a parking garage to house approximately 1,000 students.

The problems, however, are not new to Emory’s current graduate students. The housing issue is historical to a campus that has never been able to fully quell a storm of student demand and rising housing prices in Atlanta. 

When Gary Hauk, the now-retired University historian, came to Emory in the 1980s to pursue a Ph.D. in religion at the Candler School of Theology, he lived off-campus due to the lack of graduate housing options.

“There was much more demand for [graduate housing] than the University could accommodate,” Hauk said. 

The graduate housing shortage extended to all of campus around Hauk’s time, as the Wheel reported undergraduates living in a variety of temporary housing situations throughout the 1980s. Eight students in 1979 were dubbed the “squashed sophomores” and lived in the study room of Harris Hall. In 1981, 69 students lived in the nearby Emory Sheraton hotel for the school year.

The shortage became such a problem in 1986 that the University had to transfer 250 upperclassmen to an apartment complex on Briarcliff Road called Summit Pointe due to an unexpected increase in enrollment. The school even offered the group an $1,000 rebate to live off-campus and relieve the pressure.

The University then bought its Clairmont Campus, then just a small apartment complex, in the mid-1980s to supply the demand from students. The apartments became dilapidated through two decades of use, and in 2000, the University tore them down to build Clairmont as students know it today. 

The current Clairmont Campus opened in 2002 with the intention to be half undergraduate and half graduate student housing, but the undergraduate demand was so overwhelming that the University decided to dedicate the rooms solely to undergraduate students, Hauk said.

 “The pressure for graduate student housing has been here for as long as I’ve been affiliated with Emory,” Hauk said. 

Hauk compared today’s swell in demand to the University following World War II, when the G.I. Bill allowed an entire generation to attend college at the same time. The demand for housing forced the University to catch up in a less elegant way than the planned graduate residences.

“They brought in trailers for students to live in and what you might think of as plywood shacks,” Hauk said. “They were buildings that really were temporary until the University could build better, but the students referred to them as Mudville or Lower Slobbovia. ”

The University most recently instituted temporary housing in 2021 at the Oxford campus through their modular housing units located in a parking lot behind Haygood Hall and the Oxford Student Center, where the metal structures still stand in operation. 

Rather than temporary on-campus options, the University has more often dealt with a growing student population through the Clairmont Campus or the development and purchase of off-campus apartments — Emory Point and Campus Crossings, for example — to direct students and their demand elsewhere. Elaine Turner, the Senior Director of Housing Operations, stated that the current housing issues stem from increased enrollment of undergraduates and transfers.

Over the last 10 years, however, the student body population has largely remained near the same figure of 14,000, which Hauk said is likely due to high development costs.

Atlanta’s exponential increase in housing costs has pushed students to look to on-campus options more than usual in recent years. Thus far, Emory has struggled to meet the demand of students, from both graduate and undergraduate bodies. Undergraduate students applying to live on-campus and Clairmont campus experienced waitlists last spring for rooms, Turner said. 

 The current graduate housing project started in 2019 when Emory conducted a survey of all graduate students. The University chose the location for its proximity to campus but also its availability. 

 Located on Haygood Drive across from Druid Hills High School, the housing will be ideal for accommodating students who could walk to campus. But its perfect location on the border of the University and Druid Hills is part of a more complicated history of land that Emory has quietly acquired in the neighborhood, Hauk said. 

 The University bought single-family homes on the property in the 1990s and rented them out before tearing them down for the project. One house stood until 2021 before Emory purchased and annexed it into the City of Atlanta for the project.  

 The method of buying out homes is one that the University utilized in the past. Most notably, Emory acquired a house on Briarcliff Road for annexation, according to a 2017 article from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A company titled WCE Holdings B LLC bought the house for $345,000 across from the Campus Crossings Apartments and deeded the house to the University in the following month. The previous owners or renters of the house at the time did not know the transaction contributed towards Emory’s plans of annexation.

 The University has withheld its name from other transactions that are not involved on the Druid Hills campus to obtain property in a quiet fashion. In 2019, the Midtown campus expanded through a collective $14.2 million acquisition under the name Eumi LLC of an acre of buildings and lots formerly Atlanta’s Peachtree-Pine Shelter for the homeless that closed in 2017. An Emory executive told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that concepts of the property included a hub for sciences and humanities programs for students. 

 The University’s methods of buying land have come to a head with Emory-owned houses torn down to make way for the new graduate housing. The community of Druid Hills has expressed concern of the continual encroachment into the neighborhood and blur of boundaries over time.

 Jeffrey Rader is the Dekalb County Commissioner of the district where the University stands and has served five terms over 16 years. He noticed the edge between the neighborhood and the University started to shift in 2018 when the City of Atlanta annexed over 740 acres of Emory into its boundaries. 

 “​The annexation has changed things as residents around the area are no longer represented by the government that makes decisions on their zoning,” Rader said. 

 “People that live in Druid Hills formerly had an elected official that was accountable to them and made those zoning decisions. Now, all of the elected officials that make those decisions are Atlanta elected officials and have no accountability to our surrounding areas,” Rader said.

Without any say from Druid Hills representation, the University has been able to register single-family homes as office or commercial buildings for use in any future projects. 

 The graduate housing project’s acquisition and annexation of property is the first materialization of once Druid Hills homes now turning into University buildings. Rader expressed worry that this could continue in other parts of Druid Hills that Emory owns, such houses in the historic district on Oxford Road and North Decatur Road.

 “I would have tried to maintain those houses in residential use, so that they would continue to complement the character of Druid Hills and serve as a clear delineation between the campus that is north of Decatur Road and the community that is south,” Rader said. “Nobody lives there, and they are now registered as offices. In a lot of cases, they’re under-maintained, which is another fear. Houses deteriorate, so now, they’re vulnerable to demolition.”

 Many of the houses in the historic district date back to the 1920s, around the same time the University established its Druid Hills campus. Ten years before, Asa Candler gifted around 75 acres to Emory to start construction on a campus. Those first 75 acres encompassed the Glenn Memorial Church and made a rectangle that reached Asbury Circle. 

 The land was formerly of the Muscogee tribe of Georgia who were coerced by the United States under the threat of warfare to sign the 1821 Treaty of Indian Springs. The ceded land was rural and allowed for the University’s quick expansion. More gifts came from the Candler family to then include Oxford Road, Peavine Creek and finally Lullwater Reserve. The neighborhood of Druid Hills developed around these borders to build a residential community around campus. By 1958, the University had expanded to nearly 400 acres in Druid Hills.

 During his work as the University Historian, Hauk noted a policy from the University to not acquire property beyond North Decatur Road, but some residents donated houses of former University presidents in the 1980s. The policy at this point came undone, and the University started to buy property across the road.

But for now, some students who don’t find on-campus housing are struggling to find affordable options nearby. The University’s solution of the graduate housing project poses immediate benefits for students but also foreshadows a greater change of using the former houses of Druid Hills to make room for housing.

 The graduate housing won’t be open for current students, including Lanjewar, who advocated for the project with the LGSC. Lanjewar said she views the future housing as a great accomplishment for the community but is conflicted about the use of that property. One of her graduate colleagues was renting the last house the University bought on the land in 2021 and tore down to make way for the project.

 As the construction pushes forward, Lanjewar hopes the housing can be a realistic and affordable option for future students.

“[Housing] is just a constant problem with graduate students, and I’m sure with undergraduate students,” Lanjewar said. “On our stipend, we cannot afford most of the places around, so I hope we can afford this housing. Or else, we have to make a decision to live 45 minutes away, commute, buy a car, pay for parking and just suck it up.”

Graphic by Ali Barlow.