Have you been following the #BlackburnTakeover?

A group of students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., have been occupying a campus building for over two weeks. They’re protesting poor conditions in their dorms, including rats, roaches, and mold—which has allegedly sent some of them to the hospital.

They’ve gotten the attention of the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King III, and other organizations and public figures who have voiced support. “No students at our top HBCU should be facing housing crises,” tweeted Carleah Summers, who is running for Congress in Maryland’s 6th district.

But what’s really remarkable is that the students have done their research. They’re not only calling out university leadership but also Corvias, the corporation Howard hired to build and manage the dorms. (Here’s a petition demanding that Howard “break up” with Corvias.)

It’s remarkable because the university’s deal with Corvias is just like similar deals state and local governments have been signing in recent years. These so-called “public-private partnerships,” or “P3s,” are causing all kinds of headaches.

Chicago’s 75-year P3 to lease their downtown parking meters to Wall Street investors not only has skyrocketed rates but also includes what is effectively a penalty for removing meters. This makes it more expensive to make long-term transit changes, like adding bike and bus lanes.

A few years ago, an Indiana toll-road P3 spearheaded by then-Gov. Mike Pence failed as the private investors that financed it slid toward bankruptcy. On top of that, the deal was $137.3 million more expensive than if the state had used traditional public financing.

Some Canadian P3s for public school buildings limit teachers from opening windows or hanging educational materials on classroom walls. Others limit community use of the school and school grounds on evenings and weekends. (Unfortunately, late last year Maryland’s Prince George’s County became the first U.S. public school district to sign a P3 to finance, build, and maintain new school buildings—despite community opposition.)

A toll-road P3 in Texas experienced pavement defects almost immediately and led to increased flooding in a local town.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Corvias appears to be cutting corners on maintaining Howard’s dorms. And that students are hitting a metaphorical wall when trying to get the university to fix the situation.

(For more on Corvias, see this thorough and damning research from Howard graduate student Kymberli Michele Corprue.)

What’s particularly alarming is that the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act currently being debated by Congress essentially incentivizes P3s. We really need to be on the look out for foolish privatization proposals in our states, cities, and school districts.

The students are right: “As long as Howard University has an active contract with Corvias, Howard’s housing conditions on campus will suffer.”

Photo by Kevin Coles.

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