Behind the prominent facades of houses that line University Avenue are some less grand spaces, worn and rickety from use by generations of young men and women.
The costs of maintaining the historic fraternity and sorority houses that once defined the northern edge of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus have risen over the years, and deferred maintenance has led to code violations and concerns by U officials.
U administrators hope a $3 million pilot loan program approved this month by the Board of Regents will not only fix Greek houses but will also encourage students to become more involved in the organizations they describe as a benefit. Greek participation on campus remains among the lowest of Big Ten schools.
“Greek chapter students have a higher than average [grade-point average], higher than average graduation and retention rates,” said Sarah Harris, managing director of the University of Minnesota Foundation Real Estate Advisors. “Significant numbers of Greek students are part of leadership on campus.”
The city of Minneapolis has cited some houses multiple times in the past few years. Inspection records obtained by the Star Tribune show many of the violations were for minor issues like doors needing to be fixed, missing smoke alarms and improper food storage. At least two inspections cited rodent and mold problems.
For example, Alpha Delta Phi, a literary fraternity at 1725 University Av. SE, was cited at least 29 times between 2013 and 2015. On March 3, it was cited eight times, including for a “big hole in the wall downstairs.” Phi Kappa Psi fraternity’s house at 1609 University Av. SE was cited at least 21 times between 2012 and 2014. In October 2012, violations include broken windows, water damaged ceiling tiles and damaged kitchen walls. In some cases, the violations appear to have been fixed by subsequent inspections.
Fred Friswold, co-chairman of the Greek Community Strategic Task Force, told a May meeting of a Board of Regents committee that many of the houses do not meet code. “Some of the houses are quite rundown; some are not at all,” said Roxann Goertz, a Pi Beta Phi sorority member and president of the Minnesota Greek Alumni Council.
Only fraternities and sororities recognized by the U’s Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life will be allowed to borrow a maximum of $300,000. The funding may only be used for safety, comfort and efficiency improvements, officials said.
The interest rates, tied to Treasury bill rates, will likely be between 2.8 and 3.7 percent, according to estimates. Each Greek organization is required to produce a plan to service the debt in five-, 10- and 15-year amortizations. Properties or mortgages can serve as collateral.
As a subsidiary of the University of Minnesota Foundation (UMF), the UMF Real Estate Advisors will administer the loans. The U and UMF are each contributing $1.5 million to the revolving loan fund, scheduled to begin this month on a first-come basis.
The loan program was designed to be an affordable solution by the U, UMF and the Greek Alumni Council, created to represent Greek alumni.
Safe and sustainable Greek housing was identified as a major priority in the task force’s 105-page report on how to strengthen Greek life. It concluded that at least $13 million to $15 million is needed to make the existing Greek housing safe and functional.
The 33 owned or leased Greek houses at the U are generally between 70 and 90 years old. Many were designed by local architects like William Kenyon and stand in a row down University Avenue in the Greek Letter Chapter House Historic District. The majority of houses are owned by nonprofit organizations created by Greek alumni. Mostly, they have been unable to fund significant renovations, according to the task force report.
“You can’t just go to Home Depot and buy a $800 window [for historic housing],” said Matt Levine, program director of the U’s Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life. Even some retaining walls, Levine said, are limited to specific brick, colors and, in some cases, contractors.
The U’s loan program is the latest sign that the U has taken a special interest in Greek organizations. Concern about crime led to the installation of motion-activated lights for Greek houses, paid by a $15,000 grant established when the Vikings were granted access to TCF Bank Stadium, the U’s student-run newspaper, Minnesota Daily, recently reported.
Greek participation hit a low in the early 2000s. An effort to boost participation to the Big Ten median (13 percent of undergraduates) brought the number up to 3,100 — 10.3 percent of Twin Cities campus undergraduates.