By Caleb Austin ’22 and Jack Hanson ’25
As students returned to campus for their Spring 2022 semester, they were greeted with pressures to find their next housing arrangements and substantial changes to the future of student housing on campus. Long ago the administration canceled the ability to live off-campus senior year and has instead sponsored campus-owned houses or the Odell’s neighborhood as an alternative. Students frustrated with the lack of housing options, shrinking opportunities for better housing options, and a slew of problems with student housing culminated in the formation of the HWS Housing Coalition and Committee.
On February 22, 2022, the Housing Coalition posted a list of grievances and demands on their Instagram page:
“As students, we expect safe, comfortable, and welcoming housing. The decision to transition from student-inspired Theme Houses to office-regulated Link Houses has been made without student consent. We are angry and demand change. Therefore, we demand that the Office of Student Engagement postpones all housing selection decisions, and changes until the following is addressed. We demand full transparency from the Office of Student Engagement on all future decisions directly related to housing, student resources, or any potential matters that affect us. We demand the Office of Student Engagement to fully utilize and enhance the previously made Housing Committee with more student voices of all backgrounds, especially BIPOC identifying. We demand that the Office of Student Engagement directly addresses the entire student body, providing us specific answers or replies to the following questions/statements: Sustainability is being turned into the Communications Office – why? Cultural Connections is no longer a theme house – why? 380 S. Main is no longer being leased – why? Carr McGuire 775 S. Main… what is happening with this theme house? QTBIPOC is facing a potential reduction in rooms for students and common spaces for RC relocation. Why weren’t residents informed? How can we be assured that the practice of privileged allowance of off-campus housing won’t continue? What is the expected impact of eliminating housing options without adding new ones, and how are the colleges acting accordingly?”
The Housing Coalition has clear aims: transparency, improvement to student housing, and answers to the administration’s changes. Student housing concerns students and they need to be included in the decision-making process. Speaking with Vice President of Campus Life and Dean of Students Dr. Becca B. Barile, we sought to understand where the administration is coming from.
The Herald (TH): Could you summarize the changes made to Housing this year?
Barile: The positive changes were kind of overshadowed by the lack of communication and explanation. Some of the major ones were seniors who live on campus have more flexible meal plans starting next semester. Students were also asking for more single room options, so we were able to turn some double rooms into single rooms for a while. That didn’t necessarily get talked about positively because the biggest change was the rebranding of the theme house program. The theme house program was rebranding to Link Housing as part of one change to that program that was frustrating to students, and after going to Student Government and getting some feedback we understand why.
TH: What was the goal of rebranding theme houses, what was trying to be accomplished there?
Barile: We had requests from a group of students who asked for two offices on campus to have a theme house next year, and they also asked if those two theme houses could become a legacy theme house – theme houses that have been here for so long that they are ongoing year to year. As more and more houses got added to that legacy program, that meant there were fewer houses for new proposals. There are sometimes houses that choose not to reapply, and that house becomes available. The goal of link housing was to guarantee the same themes year to year and reduce the beginning process of making houses reapply for their house.
TH: There was significant backlash to these changes. How have the Colleges responded to that, and are there any more plans in response to this backlash in the future?
Barile: The biggest change that had concern was the link housing process. Another change was to expand senior interest housing. We always have students that are in groups that want to live together that maybe they don’t get into a house or don’t get into Odell’s, so we expanded the number of senior interest housing that was available for groups. There were some of those houses that didn’t get selected during senior interest housing, so we were able to allow groups of students to propose new themes for those houses. So, we went back to that original idea of allowing students, no matter how many houses are available, the opportunity to propose those new themes. What we want to maintain is the idea that theme houses have resources that are offices on campus. The office doesn’t run the theme house, but the other way around…
TH: Are there elements within these changes, and the way these were implemented that you regret?
Barile: I don’t think there was great communication about it, and I think we are going to evaluate how we communicate with students, particularly before a decision is made, to get feedback, and to make sure there is a clear understanding and that we are all operating under the same framework.
TH: Are you satisfied with the current state of housing? Are there any big picture goals that you or the Colleges have more generally?
Barile: I think we are always seeking to improve residential living for our students. We’re always seeking to look at houses that don’t have kitchens and add kitchens. I host open office hours every Friday with a B&G representative as well as an environmental hygienist and we sit, and we wait to talk with students who have a specific concern, and then we send out the maintenance team literally that afternoon to go look at it. We continually want to make improvements. I would love us to provide more apartment-style housing, more studio apartments, more houses with kitchens, and more private bathrooms.
According to Dr. Barile, the administration tries to be more transparent, and those changes are mostly positive. Dr. Barile says the administration wants to improve student housing and student life generally too. We wondered if this all ends here. The Housing Coalition didn’t seem to think so.
A post from the Housing Coalition on February 26 voiced poor conditions in one campus house. It detailed mice, noisy and scorching radiators, lack of alternative housing, mold, lack of amenities, and housekeepers who stole and screwed around. We contacted a member of the house to investigate the accusations and see what’s been done.
“Yeah, we have mice and we recently saw a rat… We keep very clean too, our housekeepers have complimented us on that. Last semester our bathroom floor was rotting, and they bounced between whether they’d replace it or not, my foot literally dented the floor – they eventually did, but we have other floors rotting. Nothing’s been done about loud radiators keeping us awake. They put a plastic grate around the downstairs radiator that burned people, but it’s small, and with the grate, the bathroom has even less space– it’s still wicked hot; the floor there is rotting because of incessant radiator leaks. I don’t understand why the college buys houses and lets them rot, our house isn’t the only one that has conditions like these. Mold, rot, neglect is everywhere…”
Another student, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote the Herald to voice problems with freshman housing.
“One of the days was a heatwave, we went to the lake to swim, and when [my roommate] swam his body went into shock because of the temperature difference. He’s okay, we tried to apply for an AC unit but were rejected because there was no medical reason why. A freaking hospital visit wasn’t enough.
On multiple occasions, the bathroom has been flooded for over a week, with no fixes happening over that. There was a faulty pipe, and they just never fixed it, when they did initially, it held for two weeks before flooding again. The laundry sucks. It doesn’t wash properly, it doesn’t dry properly– nothing functions correctly. I can’t vouch for other dorms, but I have heard of horror stories; obviously, there was the JPR mold incident. Oh yeah, Sherrill’s bathrooms have that too…”
In light of these desperate student accounts, we spoke with a member of the Housing Committee, who wishes to remain anonymous, regarding how HWS has been responding to them.
TH: What has been the effect of the housing coalition so far? Has the administration been willing to talk and make concessions to the housing coalition?
Housing Committee Member (HCM): The effect of the housing coalition has been that the administration has pulled back on removing several houses of importance, that have positively affected mainly POC, LGBTQ+, and other minorities on campus, including 3 new link houses. The administration has been willing to talk and make concessions, Student Government has created a housing committee [with] 5 students including myself to bridge that gap.
TH: Have you gotten satisfactory answers to the changes being made by the administration and what does the housing coalition want at this juncture?
HCM: Yes and no. The administration has answered that the reason for these changes was purely financial, given the negative impacts of Covid-19 and the continuous decrease in the student population. Regarding 787, the apartments were leased to the school, and with the lack of attention to said apartments and not enough students to fill the rooms, it was best just to move on. The movement of offices that are currently located downtown are moving back to campus to not only cut costs but also the rents were just too much. On the other hand, it’s not satisfactory due to several issues. These include black mold (the school denies any findings) when there is clear proof of mold and water damage in several houses and dorms. The washing machines are an issue– if one breaks down, the administration has poorly answered. For example, Bampton has one washer and one dryer for the entire house, the washer was broken for a month and students had to go to the laundromat to do their laundry. The administration has downplayed student autonomy and seems to disregard the healthy separation and balance of home-work lifestyle.
TH: Is the housing coalition making claims about other student housing issues on campus more generally? Beyond the original grievances, what is the housing coalition looking at going forward?
HCM: The coalition and committee stress that separation of school and home is a necessity that must be always respected and cannot be infringed by the administration. Both parties continue to fight [to] gain necessary requirements to modernize all housing, with AC students can change themselves, update all laundry machines to decrease the likelihood of breakdowns, keep the option for students to propose theme houses each year and selected by the student-run housing committee, update all kitchens in student housing, add tables to houses so students can eat together, update gutters to prevent mold or water damage, keep student autonomy, hold the administration accountable in which the Student Government lacks, help the administration find good locations to relocate offices for more housing moving forward, and more affordable housing.
The administration voiced similar goals about the improvement and modernization of student housing, but whether they are doing enough comes down to whether they address the other issues pervading student housing on campus. The Housing Coalition remains vigilant in demanding more from the administration, and these student accounts communicate a sense of desperation on campus. What the future of HWS looks like depends on the future of student housing, and whether the demands and needs of students are met. This comes down to whether the administration follows through on its commitments and acknowledges the issues with on-campus housing.