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Proposed bill may improve safety for Downtown housing

Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Act (CHIA) can allow tax-exempt donations from organizations

Legislation in committee in Congress could provide some off-campus students a way of getting more funding to fix dangerous housing conditions.

Paige Nazinitsky/ Managing Editor The Collegiate Housing Infrastructure Act could provide funds in the form of grants to off-campus residences for safety improvements. Information from the Fraternal Relations Government Coalition

Pete Sessions, a Republican congressman from Texas, sponsored a bill in April of 2013 called the Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Act, or CHIA.

The proposed bill would allow tax-exempt educational or charitable organizations, like fraternities, sororities, Hillel or Chabad, to donate tax-exempt grants for housing improvements to off-campus collegiate housing.

Currently, such donations are taxed.

Ben Sheridan, a part-time student majoring in political science who presented a bill supporting CHIA to Student Congress last week, said that many organizations with off-campus housing live in dangerous conditions.

“Ninety percent of college fatalities are off-campus student housing,” he said. “I lived in a place, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which was very unsafe. We didn’t have enough money to put in proper fire escapes or safety features.”

But Sheridan said that the bill would make more funding available from national organizations that wanted to help.

“There are many national organizations that want to make the donations to safety as long as they are tax-exempt,” he said. “From the mindset of charity, it doesn’t come at any cost to taxpayer, it’s a great way for schools to encourage building and growth in the community.”

The Fraternal Government Relations Coalition (FGRC), a lobbying group that advocates for the interests of students in Greek Life, estimated that the bill would enable Greek organizations to contribute over $1 billion to the economy with capital improvement projects. They also estimated that it would only cost taxpayers $148 million over the next 10 years.

Sheridan also said that the money coming in from national organizations would alleviate the cost of living for student housing.

“It costs more to room and board at Binghamton than to pay for tuition. This is a way to bring costs and bring down long-term debt,” he said. “The aim is to bring cost to $5,000 a year, which is the average cost at a nonprofit university.”

Other representatives of Greek Life agreed that the conditions of off-campus housing were dangerous.

“Our house would probably be condemned if we called code on it. Since there’s not a lot of student housing options we just kind of had to deal with,” said a representative of one fraternity who requested anonymity because of the organization’s current living situation.

But while his fraternity has found a new home for next year, the representative doubted that the bill would have made a difference.

“Our nationals is basically nonexistent,” he said. “My pledge class didn’t receive any help when we found a new house.”

Milton Chester, recently appointed assistant dean for off-campus programs, said that he had heard few complaints from Greek Life representatives.

“I’ve heard hearsay from third-party sources about the danger of off-campus housing locations, but I don’t recall any Greek Life representatives approaching me to tell me something was below standards,” Chester said.

Sheridan said, though, that this bill would almost certainly help Binghamton University students.

“Binghamton has specifically been identified as a school that could benefit from this,” he said. “In the past few years Greek Life has grown by 30 percent and will need more options.”

According to GovTrack.us, there is only a 4 percent chance of the bill being passed, but Sheridan remained optimistic about its chances.

“We wouldn’t be working and sending students to Washington in April if it’s not something we thought could happen,” he said in reference to the FGRC.

Supporting Sheridan’s motion on Monday, Student Congress agreed to officially call on local politicians to support the bill.