As Howard University students approach nearly a month of protesting in the #BlackburnTakeover movement for better living conditions, all eyes are on the school’s administration — especially President Wayne A.I. Frederick. Though temperatures are dropping and protesters are seeking resources for heat, Howard University’s administration remains steadfast in not negotiating these matters with students until they leave the building. Additionally, Frederick insists that the poor conditions only apply to a small number of facilities.
“While there have only been a small number of documented facilities reports relative to our entire inventory of residence rooms, we are actively inquiring about unreported issues that may be in the residence halls by going door to door to interview and assist each resident,” Frederick wrote in an Oct. 25 statement released by the university. “The results of our inquiries to date affirm that the issues are not widespread and the vast majority of our students are living comfortably in their rooms.”
The continued unsatisfactory response has many students and alumni reconsidering Howard University’s relationship with Corvias, the private-owned company that operates four of its dormitories. According to their website, it “partners with public sector institutions to solve their toughest environmental, energy, and infrastructure challenges.” Corvias operates on behalf of colleges and universities, as well as the U.S. military, offering the promise of fronting the bill for renovations and management in exchange for decades-long contractual “partnerships.” Howard University signed a 40-year contract with the entity in 2016, giving the latter the ability to “finance, renovate, manage, operate and maintain” four central campus dorms. Though it seems like a bargain, Corvias has a documented history of housing issues and bailing on its clients if decisions are no longer profitable.
Corvias’ name has been involved in scandal on multiple occasions. According to a statement by the United Campus Workers of Georgia, the University System of Georgia signed a 65-year contract valued at $517 million with the company to manage its dorms. As part of the deal, students were charged fees for the university system for new housing and renovations. However, the pandemic exposed a few flaws in the contract. The UCWGA revealed that, per details of the contract, “Corvias was not required to cover any of the housing refunds provided to students when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of colleges and universities in March 2020 and students moved out of dorms.” Instead, the university system was forced to use the CARES Act funds to refund students totaling an estimated $15 million. In a letter to the USG Board of Regents, the company lobbied for the reopening of the dorms so they could receive more student fees, suggesting that the university had no right to stop or discourage students from moving into on-campus housing, and later subjecting them to fund a custodial staff for dorms that it initially agreed to finance and manage.
Corvias’ poor response to COVID-19 protocol captured the attention of Congress, who wrote a letter to the company’s founder and CEO, John G. Picerne, in August 2020. Picerne, a man born into a real estate family, is described in his bio as one with 30 years of experience and the face of the “visionary public-private partnership model” that allows the company to “successfully address the large-scale infrastructure, housing, and deferred maintenance issues facing the nation.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rashida Tlaib accused him of “putting profits above public health during the COVID-19 pandemic” and seeking to “influence return-to-campus plans.” In addition to outlining Corvias’ letter to USG’s Board of Regents in advocacy for on-campus housing during the pandemic, Warren and Tlaib also detailed the real estate developer’s management of military housing.
Picerne has management ties with many of the military bases across the United States. However, the first that comes to mind is Fort Bragg. The company is currently undergoing a $5 million lawsuit from military families over poor living conditions. Many families reported black mold, faulty repairs, and collapsing ceilings that left children injured — similar to what Howard University students are currently experiencing on campus. The lawsuit accuses Corvias of mismanagement of housing, as well as not abiding by their 50-year contract with the military.
In 2002, families at Fort Meade were also promised improved housing relief by Corvias. During a 10-year development phase, from 2002 to 2011, the establishment promised to demolish most of the existing Meade homes and build 2,799 new ones. However, according to a Reuters investigation in 2018, only 856 new homes were built. Though the company-run website for Meade’s homes insist they feature “convenience, value and amenities commonly found in upscale residential neighborhoods,” the reality is much different for those who live there. Among the problems of many of the homes were collapsed ceilings, peeling lead-based paint, wasp infestations, and waterlogged drywall.
This information all circles back to Howard University’s partnership with the billion-dollar company, which essentially exposes a similar pattern of the latter’s unethical behavior. Howard University’s East and West Towers dorms were renovated in 2018 in partnership with the company, which was proudly touted by both parties. “At Corvias, we are extremely proud to be a part of such a transformative partnership that offers our residential scholars an attractive, high-quality on-campus housing experience,” Picerne said at the time. “Completing this second project milestone three and half months early is a great example of the advantages of our innovative public-private partnership model. This unprecedented level of collaboration between both Howard and Corvias, created a more vibrant, physical community where students can comfortably live, learn and socialize during their collegiate years at Howard.” However, it is in these same 3-year-old buildings that students continue to face pipe busts, black mold, and consistent rodent activity. As previously stated by protesters, students have been subjected to conditions that prevent them from living comfortably as they attend the university.
Per an article from Howard’s student-ran newspaper, The Hilltop, President Frederick said during a meeting with #BlackburnTakeover organizers in October that “information pertaining to their partnership with Corvias could not be divulged but that the University is actively working to clean mold from residence halls.” This leaves many unanswered questions open to speculation: Why is Corvias not being held responsible for the poor living conditions of student dorms in which they agreed to manage, renovate, and finance for 40 years? What information is Howard University trying to withhold from the public about their contract? Most importantly, how is the developer allocating its funds if it’s not being used for renovations and keeping dorms clean during a pandemic?