Housing company pressured Ga. system to reopen campuses, critics say

Piedmont Central, a 1,152-bed residential hall on Georgia State University's campus, was built through a public-private partnership with Corvias, a Rhode Island-based company. ERIC STIRGUS / ERIC.STIRGUS@AJC.COM

A letter recently posted online is raising questions about whether the University System of Georgia’s reopening plans for the fall semester, which starts Monday on some campuses, is being steered by finances and not the health and safety of its students and employees.

The May 29 letter from a vice president at Corvias, a Rhode Island-based company in a public-private partnership with the state system since 2014, urges Georgia officials not to set limits on how many students can live in some campus housing and points out its financial investment in the arrangement.

“(W)hile the CDC may be of the belief that reducing density in student housing may lower the possibility of infection, we do not believe that requires a reduction in the number of roommates that would typically be permitted in the Phase 1 Student Housing or the number of students that can be housed in a given building,” wrote Chris Wilson.

Wilson reminded the University System in the letter that the company secured $548 million to build approximately 6,500 new beds and renovate about 3,500 beds across nine campuses.

Corvias has more contracts with schools in Georgia than any state.

The letter was obtained by Kelly O’Neal, a rising fourth-year Georgia Tech student, who said she received documents through the state’s Open Records Act. O’Neal posted the letter and other documents Wednesday on Twitter involving campus reopening plans that were either sent or received by the system’s chancellor, Steve Wrigley. The Corvias documents have been shared by many Georgia faculty members, students and parents.

The system said the schools, including Georgia State University, made their own decisions concerning housing plans for the upcoming semester and were not pressured to change them by the company.

“Each University System of Georgia institution made its own decisions regarding housing capacity for (the) fall semester,” said a statement from the system. “Georgia State University approached system leadership with a plan to reduce housing density for the fall semester and was told it was their decision. The system office performed an analysis to review the impact as we generally do with our housing portfolios. It became apparent to GSU in July that dramatically reduced student demand for housing has resulted in lower density than what was being planned for, and therefore the issue was moot and the proposed plan was not implemented.

At no point did any campus indicate the decisions they made regarding housing capacity were influenced by the concerns raised by Corvias.”

Others are not convinced.

“This explains so much ... Corvias will lose money if students study remotely and it is trying to force USG to keep students in the dorms, despite the risks,” Georgia Tech professor Brian Magerko said in a statement sent by the United Campus Workers of Georgia.

Telephone calls and emails to the company’s spokeswoman seeking comment since Wednesday were not returned.

The contracts generate major cash for the company, which also provides housing at 15 military facilities in nine states. Corvias is projected to collect nearly $71 million in revenues this school year from Georgia State University properties if it has a 90% occupancy rate, the records show. Georgia State has more beds, about 3,500, than any school in the Corvias partnership.

University System officials feared a legal challenge from Corvias if it unilaterally reduced room capacity, records show. They also said in the records that Corvias does not have to provide student refunds for the suspension or termination of housing agreements due to public health measures. Students can get a prorated refund for an approved medical or emergency withdrawal, the records show.

The University System’s 26 colleges and universities have lost significant revenue since the pandemic. They lost about $300 million during the spring semester when it ended in-person instruction. They had to cut their budgets by 10% for the upcoming school year.

The system also refunded students living in Corvias-managed housing $13.4 million this past spring when campuses were closed to students, the documents said. “Corvias did not cover or share in responsibility for this refund nor indicated a willingness to do so for Fall 2020 if housing is similarly closed for public health measures,” USG officials said in the documents.

Georgia’s Board of Regents approved a 65-year arrangement with Corvias in November 2014, beating out eight competitors. The University System, then led by Hank Huckaby, wanted to relieve itself from about $300 million in debt from some of its residential housing. The system would still own the buildings and land, and Corvias operates the dorms and collects rent. Corvias receives a tax exemption for operating the student housing, approved through a 2014 voter referendum.

Most U.S. colleges and universities planned around the time the Corvias official wrote the letter to have some form of in-person instruction for the fall semester. Many have changed course in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases rose throughout the nation, including in Georgia, last month.

Some USG schools in the Corvias partnership wrote in their campus return plans that they plan to reduce housing density this fall or, in the case of Columbus State University, will not require first-year students to live on campus. Others say students will be assigned to all available beds. Augusta University said it has offered single-occupancy units this semester.

Georgia State, according to one document, planned to convert double-occupancy suites into single-occupancy and charge a higher single-occupancy rate. Nearly 2,200 students have either canceled their housing contracts or deferred to the spring semester, university officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The university said the student decisions made it unnecessary to implement the plan.

The University of North Georgia, which has an arrangement with Corvias to manage more than 800 beds, said it has made no adjustments to its occupancy regulations. Students may request to live in single-occupancy spaces, and those requests are granted as availability allows and cancellations become available, the university said in a statement.

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Here’s an updated statement from the University System of Georgia concerning the May 29 letter from Corvias:

The University System of Georgia (USG) announced in early April plans to return to on-campus instruction in Fall 2020, if public health guidelines allowed. Over the next two months, the presidents of each of USG’s 26 institutions led an extensive planning process detailing how best to do that on their campuses, with input from hundreds of campus stakeholders. Those plans, which included how each institution wanted to address campus housing, were due to USG no later than May 26. The plans followed guidance from USG, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As part of that process, each campus made its own decisions about how to manage student housing.

On May 29, USG received a letter from Corvias, a company that manages campus housing for nine USG institutions. The letter stated the company’s expectations for campus housing capacity and financial payment for fall semester, notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic.

No USG institution factored Corvias’ demands into its campus housing plans for Fall 2020. Those plans had already been submitted to the system and followed DPH and CDC public health guidance. Nor did Corvias’ letter cause subsequent changes.

USG has been and remains committed to the essential importance of health and safety for students, faculty and staff. The system continues to follow guidance from DPH, CDC and the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force. As their guidance evolves, the system’s guidance will as well.

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