newsMay 8, 2024
International students in Cape Girardeau struggle with off-campus housing due to discriminatory practices and complex background checks, despite efforts by university officials to address these challenges.
story image illustation
Graphic by Molly Phegley

Background check procedures and racial discrimination have made it difficult for international students to find off-campus housing in Cape Girardeau, according to a university official and student. This issue has become so prevalent that the assistant director of International Student Services Brooke DeArman has approached the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau to bring attention to the problem.

There is no doubt that international students face adversity when moving to a new country to continue their education, but one of the most difficult experiences for international students is finding off-campus housing that will accommodate them.

DeArman said many international students, especially grad students, are met with challenges in finding off-campus housing each semester. Finding housing for international students is a much different process than it is for domestic students.

When an international student is going through their initial online orientation, they are provided with resources for housing, but DeArman said there are restrictions on how much information can be provided for off-campus housing since SEMO is a publicly funded university with its own on-campus housing options.

Samikshya Adhikar is a junior computer science major from Nepal who has experienced the difficulties of finding housing in Cape Girardeau. Adhikar lived on campus for a semester before moving off campus, so she had time to go through the process of obtaining paperwork, but she said it was still a difficult and confusing process.

Adhikar said she thinks it would be helpful to have resources or information about what paperwork students need ahead of time and how to get it. Many are not aware of security deposits, social security paperwork or credit history.

Many landlords in Cape Girardeau require renters to provide a social security number, which a majority of international students do not have, making it almost impossible for them to rent through certain companies.

Manager at Area Properties Management Chris Long is one of Cape’s landlords that has helped international students find housing in the past. He said Area Properties Management does their best to accommodate international students who do not have social security numbers or credit history by doing research and communicating with SEMO’s International Education and Services to confirm their enrollment as students.

However, there are renters and rental companies in Cape Girardeau who do not participate in these same accommodations.

DeArman said she has reported renters to Cape’s Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau for refusing to rent to international students who do not have social security numbers.

“As the person who has to advocate for the students, I am actively doing what I can to stop this,” DeArman said. “With the Chamber, [I asked] can you help us get this information out that they may not have because it could just be a landlord that's a private owner who doesn't realize that this is discriminatory.”

Although the website states landlords can legally ask applicants to provide their social security number to run credit or background checks on the applicant, it is a violation of the Fair Housing Act to ask questions that may be considered discriminatory.

Adhikar said she has experienced landlords asking discriminatory questions and denying her based on her answer.

“One or two houses that we looked for, they asked if we were Indians and they asked us what country [we are] from,” Adhikar said. “When they hear anything near Asia, they say ‘No, we cannot rent to you’, straight up.”

The Missouri Department of Labor website states, “The Missouri Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate in any aspect of housing because of an individual’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, familial status and disability, including refusing to rent or sell housing or making housing unavailable to certain individuals.”

Not only is it difficult for international students to find landlords and rental companies that are willing to rent to them, but they also often run into a general lack of available housing.

For many domestic SEMO students, they begin the process of applying for housing months in advance, but international students often do not begin looking for housing until they have already arrived in the United States.

DeArman said with international students arriving in Cape Girardeau in July and August, they are already behind in applying to housing, meaning there are very few options once they arrive.

Long said Area Properties Management does what they can to accommodate and help international students through the rental process, but it can be difficult to find housing at the last minute.

“We'll get a call and that student needs immediate occupancy. I'm not sure why housing isn't nailed down before they arrive in Cape Girardeau,” Long said. “It seems like something is missing from that [process] to not have housing setup before they arrive in town.”

With the combination of Towers East moving to single rooms and a lack of space in dorms, many international students are left with off-campus housing as their only option.

“I believe it was this past fall, where they started not allowing grad students to live on campus at a certain point because they were running out of space for the students who were required to live on campus,” DeArman said.

When international students are forced to look into off-campus housing, the factor of transportation comes into play. Many students must search for options outside of Cape Girardeau due to the lack of available housing.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot more students who are living in St. Louis, and commuting to class every week,” DeArman said. “We've got some living over in Carbondale, which, of course, is a different state, so there's different rules and regulations there.”

For international students who do not have a means of personal transportation, housing near campus is imperative, but oftentimes very limited.

Long said Area Properties Management has very few rental options near campus due to properties being sold to owners who are now managing those properties themselves.

For students who are looking for resources when it comes to finding off-campus housing, websites like Zillow, and are helpful in finding available properties. The article "11 Documents Needed to Rent an Apartment [2024]” by ApartmentList provides a list of paperwork often needed when applying for rental property.

If students feel they have been discriminated against and want the Missouri Commission on Human Rights to investigate, they can file a Discrimination Complaint on the Missouri Department of Labor website.