July 29, 2010

Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Report

Aliza Fishbein (Zeta Omicron-Johns Hopkins)
Alpha Phi Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Act Representative

I went as Alpha Phi International's only collegiate representative for the second consecutive year to the National Interfraternal Council and National Panhellenic Council lobbying conference. Over the last several years the National Interfraternal Caucus along with the NIC's Political Action Committee have tried to pass a bill (S.187, HR1547) called the Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Act. Attending the conference requires several things, including research about housing on my campus, passing a resolution in the Student Government Association, and acquiring the signature of my university president on a letter to the Members of Congress who have jurisdiction over my university. About eighty collegians and several hundred alumni gathered in Washington D.C. for four days to discuss the bill and its importance and get trained in lobbying technique.

The Collegiate Housing Infrastructure Act is a really critical bill for Greeks and other not-for-profit student organizations (including Neuman, Hillel, Co-Op housing) right now. As the status quo stands there is a disparity in the way tax law is written for not-for-profit (501c(3)) organizations.If one were to donate tax deductable dollars to a university or college the institution could use those dollars for any purpose, including building dormitories. That same donation to a not-for-profit student housing organization like a fraternity or sorority could not be used for building infrastructure.

This is particularly significant because this form of housing is important to both college and students. With enrollment on the rise colleges are finding themselves less capable of housing students and are looking to private housing sources for overflow (much like at JHU). As the largest student landlord (after universities), housing 250,000 students each year in 44,000 housing units across the country, Greek houses provide that alternative housing option. As tuition rises and students struggle to find affordable housing, they look to Greek housing which is the cheapest option across the board.

The ability to provide safe housing to our students is a top priority to Greek organization, however, they are unable to raise the funds needed to upgrade their houses. Currently only 39% of Greek houses have fire sprinkler systems and the average cost to retrofit a house with fire suppression equipment is $48,000 and can be up to $250,000. Since 2000 there have been 140 student housing fire deaths and by April there had already been 5 last semester. Fire related deaths is the leading cause of death for college and university students - there has never been a student fatality from fire in a house with a sprinkler system installed.

The Collegiate Housing Infrastructure Act is important for the eleven fraternity houses at Johns Hopkins as well as Alpha Phi chapters across North America. Currently there are a few known fraternity houses at Johns Hopkins with sprinklers but none of them are known to be functioning. Also, CHIA would make it possible for Housing Corporation Boards (run through the National/International fraternity or sorority) could make other safety upgrades, including leaking ceilings, insecure staircases, cleaning of open wires, and the additions of sleeping quarters.

On Capitol Hill we partnered with members of Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Order and soon became close friends with them and others across the Greek community. We met with staff and Congressional Members during our eleven meetings in only a matter of hours. One of those Members is the only Alpha Phi in Congress, Lynn Woolsey, a representative from Northern California (her district includes half of the Golden Gate Bridge!). She credited our visit for her endorsement of the bill in a speech she made at the Political Action Committee dinner. Walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol with Lory was an incredible experience, having a real hand in housing policy. I also have gained a real sense of the deep influence Greek life has on our lives and the true meaning of lifetime membership. Witnessing fraternity brothers ranging in age gather together to serenade the sorority women with their fraternity song was only one means of expressing fraternal ties. True friendships were forged and I am still in touch with the many advisors and collegians I met at the NIC/NPC Conference. What a weekend!

Recently, we reached a majority in the House (118 signatures)! It was a rewarding experience and is still ongoing as I continue to followup with Congressional offices.

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