President Michael Elliott toured Newport House on Tuesday, Nov. 15, to look at a number of concerns that residents have about living conditions in the dorm.
Residents, whose reports have included mold, flooding, and infestation, and other hazards, said these issues were left unresolved by the department of Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S).
Elliott was invited to visit the dorm by resident Lorett Alarcon ’24, who led the tour with fellow resident Catherine Carpio ’24. The two accompanied Elliott and Executive Director of Planning, Design and Construction Tom Davies around the dorm for about 15 minutes, showing them various facilities in the house that have proven problematic for residents, as well as areas of disrepair.
Alarcon has tried to bring administrative attention to the issues since October to little avail. She eventually personally invited Elliott for a tour when she spoke with him at a first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) student event this month.
“The problems in Newport are not new,” Alarcon said. She has lived there since last year despite trying, unsuccessfully, to change rooms during the spring semester due to the poor living conditions.
Newport is officially an academic theme house for Spanish-speaking students, as well as those interested in Latinx culture more generally, although this year it has also housed students who were unable to secure lodging in other dorms.
Pre-pandemic, Newport frequently hosted events for La Causa, the college’s affinity organization for Latinx students. Now, events are less frequent and less crowded, according to Alarcon and Carpio. The house can normally accommodate 30 students, plus three Spanish language assistants, but this year it’s under capacity. Only one other student lives on the second floor with Alarcon, with six empty rooms.
“During our freshman year, a lot of my friends were excited to live here,” Alarcon said. “But when we got here — between the centipedes, the mice, spiders, and everything else, everyone moved out. They looked for cleaner housing.”
The high level of humidity in the house provides fertile ground for mold, which is one of the biggest problems for residents. Students have reported seeing it under the laundry machines, in bedrooms, and on bathroom floors.
A layer of moisture coats the floor of the basement bathroom, one of whose two sinks is entirely unusable as it currently connects to a large humidifier that sits just outside the door, blocking part of the hallway. Water stains can be found on the portion of the carpet under the humidifier, another common breeding ground for mold.
For day-to-day fixes, Alarcon said, the facilities department does the best they can, but the job proves difficult when faced with issues that require long-term solutions.
On the second floor, the bathroom floods each time the shower is used. Shower and toilet water mix together, covering the floor with about a centimeter of water. The showers themselves additionally prove inconvenient, residents said, because many of them don’t feature a changing room.
Residents also remembered an incident in which a mouse got loose in the house last year, which was captured on video. One video showed the mouse sniffing around the stove in the basement kitchen and another caught it crawling inside a resident’s shoe in their bedroom.
The tour ended in Alarcon’s bedroom, where she pointed out a black substance she worried was mold growing on her window sill, and places on the floor where the carpeting lifted up, revealing more of the black substance. She also was concerned there were termites in the walls after hearing clicking noises at night, but EH&S told her and other affected residents a few days after the tour that the building’s “ancient” heating system in the walls was the source of the sound. Before this, EH&S had told Alarcon multiple times that the sounds she was hearing at 1 or 2 a.m. were from construction happening on Route 9, she said.
“I feel like no one’s listening to me,” Alarcon said to Elliott during the tour. “Facilities are telling me the problems are not as severe as I think they are.”
Elliott thanked Alarcon and Carpio for the opportunity to see the house, and assured them that he would learn more about what could be done. Some of the issues, he said, would be larger projects requiring more time to fix.
Alarcon emphasized the importance of preserving a clean, well-kept space for Latinx students, especially as the college anticipates the probable end of affirmative action, something she believes “contributes so strongly to Latino communities [on college campuses].”
Elliott’s brief visit was an important step for residents like Alarcon and Carpio, who want to see Newport become a better place for Latinx students to live and congregate.
As of now, Alarcon said in an interview with The Student, members of the community who are aware of incidents like the mouse in the kitchen are less inclined to attend cooking events hosted in Newport by La Causa, for example, and attendance remains low at those gatherings.
Alarcon arrived at Amherst in 2020, when the pandemic had halted many of the social events ordinarily hosted by La Causa. At the time, upperclassmen told her how active the club used to be, especially in Newport. The basement features a mural painted by students, with the words “justicia y libertad” (justice and freedom) and “integration is beautiful” alongside figures of Latinx activists.
“La Causa used Newport as a center for Latin unity,” Alarcon said. “Rooms are empty right now because no one wants to live here.”
According to Alarcon and Carpio, more parties than usual, often hosted by non-residents, are also being held in the basement, frequently leaving it in a state of disarray.
“I don’t know who throws parties down here, but they do not clean up at all,” Carpio said during the tour. “It’s nasty when I come down here to try to do laundry and feel the stickiness on the floor.”
“This is a very beloved space,” Alarcon added. “When it’s our party, we have a system for cleanup because it’s our home — we don’t want to ruin our home.”
Evidence of these parties was seen on the first floor, where vomit clogged a shower drain and stained an entryway rug.
Carpio and Alarcon also recalled an incident last year when several students were sick in the Newport common room during a party and the room wasn’t cleaned up until the next day. According to Carpio, custodians are usually the ones to clean up after non-resident parties.
“It was nasty to go downstairs for a glass of water and see [vomit] drying up in the sun,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate that [the custodians] have to do that because it feels so out of the job description for them — cleaning up mounds of throw up.”
After Elliott’s visit, Alarcon had a conversation with Director of EH&S Rick Mears, who she said was “really helpful” in addressing the concerns of residents. Alarcon communicated his response with the residents of Newport, which included confirmation that there were no termites, and that water quality tests had been conducted.