The State of Housing

The time is 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday April 10, and I am writing from the comfort of my grey futon in Mayo-Smith: a one-room double of 220 square feet that overlooks College Hall across the buzzing Route 9. I have exactly 10 hours until I’m due in the Friedman Room for my second-ever room draw. My room group this year is eight rising juniors — four girls, four boys — all hoping to choose suite-style living for next year. However, there is a problem. Less than an hour ago, we were all grouped around a circular table in the back room of Valentine, arduously scribbling down the number of suites remaining in relation to our position on the ordered list. Of the groups numbering four or more (groups of eight were included as two groups) yet to pick, we were 47th. There were only 36 available suites remaining in Cohan, Mayo-Smith, Stone, Pond, Coolidge, Crossett, Taplin and Jenkins. We frantically attempted to account for any possible reasons why those 46 groups ahead of us would not pick a suite. Perhaps they don’t want beer stains on their floor? Maybe the construction would deter groups from choosing a social? King and Wieland have rooms, I’m sure groups will funnel there! What about the annexes? — all the perks of social-dorm living without actually living socially! Plus, we reassured ourselves, as a split-gender room group — and with a little rearranging — we will be able to bypass the gender quota!

We were told not to worry. That’s what they told us last year. Davis is gone. Suite-style living as a sophomore? It’s not a right, it’s a privilege. Suite-style living as a junior? It’s not a right, it’s a privilege. Seligman is undergoing renovations. Pond will be untenable. Untenable: not fit to be occupied, as an apartment, house, etc.

The state of housing at Amherst College is poor. For an elite liberal arts college that strives to excel in all aspects, poor is unacceptable. The first and foremost problem is the construction of the new science building. The construction raises the obvious questions: Why is Residential Life (Res Life) letting us live this close to an extremely active construction zone? Why hasn’t Res Life done a better job of informing the student body of these extreme living conditions? Also, construction is not the only issue.

With Davis gone, the housing on campus is tight. As I learned first-hand last year, sophomores bear the brunt of this shortage, often living in one-room doubles smaller than those on the first-year quad. This year, though, I was hopeful with Res Life expanding the housing options. The renovation and re-opening of Seligman, in addition to the 15 four-person units in Alpine Commons, alleviate the stress of the on-campus housing scramble. With these two changes enacted, an additional 104 spots open up in singles and suite-style living (For perspective, Davis held approximately 50 people). Likewise, the renovations of both Waldorf and Plaza raise the capacity of both buildings by one person for every three. Despite these attempts, problems remain. Although expanding Plaza and Waldorf increases the capacity of the buildings, the result is a less-desirable living space. The only draw to the trailers in the first place was the fact that they contained large single rooms. When I inquired to a SHAC member as to why Res Life decided to renovate the trailers, the response I received was that students expressed interest in more suite-style living. Logically, however, it is inferred from this request that single rooms should not be sacrificed in the process. As a result, single-room housing on the immediate campus has diminished considerably, by 100 single rooms in the past two years. Only 24 students will be able to live in Seligman via the room draw process, as “a portion of Seligman will be dedicated to a newly formed Chinese & Japanese language house.”

Lastly, we arrive at the problem of Alpine Commons. Only eight seniors signed up to live in Alpine Commons. Why was this? First, Res Life only hosted one open house. Would you opt to live in housing that you had never seen? Second, the application process was convoluted and over-the-top, requiring signatures from professors. Lastly, the Alpine Commons option was never presented to rising juniors or sophomores. Without Alpine Commons, an open Seligman and the single-room trailers, housing is tighter than ever. Res Life’s decision not to open Leland house this year certainly offers no help.

Although the renovations and housing arrangements for the 2013-14 academic year are final, solutions to alleviate the housing crunch for next year should be explored. The following solutions are mine alone and do not mean to alienate any individual or group on campus. You may agree with one, many or none of the following suggestions. To begin, suites should not be reserved for the opt-out/medical housing, as they were in both Cohan and Taplin. As an eligible student, I decided to forgo the medical opt-out and enter room draw — because I was under the impression that opting-out of room draw meant that I would be living on my own. Next, the amount and process of culture/themed housing on campus needs to undergo a re-evaluation. I admit that I am ignorant of the popularity of themed/culture/language houses. However, to an outsider, they seem rather excessive. Approximately 180 student rooms are available in theme/culture/language housing in Moore, Porter, Newport, Charles Drew, Humphries, Seligman and Marsh. Are these houses functioning at full occupancy? If not, should entire floors and entire buildings be reserved, or should consolidation occur? Why should some student groups receive housing arrangements? A Jewish-heritage themed house was rejected by Dean Moore this year, contrary to popular student support. Likewise, are themed houses truly encouraging the student integration that Amherst College endorses? Or are they encouraging students, particularly native speakers and international students, to regress into a more “comfortable” environment, thus furthering a much-debated divide among Amherst’s ethnicities and nationalities?

Lastly, an assessment of the gender quota must occur. The quota intends to provide a balanced environment of both men and women. Consequently, it prevents athletic teams (of either sex) and fraternities from dominating one particular dorm. In my opinion, although I do not see the immediate harm in this convergence, balance should and must be upheld by the college as it sees fit. Gender in itself is a social construct, upheld only by an increasingly archaic legal structure. Gender quotas are inherently discriminatory, as room groups with higher LUVs that are in violation to the gender quota are disadvantaged in relation to lower groups that do not violate the quota. This is unfair to upperclassmen that have rightfully earned their spot in room draw — by virtue of time spent at Amherst. The quota also appears to function under the sole discretion of Dean Moore, as certain social dorms were closed to men before the gender quota was reached. Additionally, the quota was lowered from 60-40 in 2012-13 to 55-45 in 2013-14. The student body was not consulted, nor informed of this change. Aside from the gender quota alone, there are interrelated issues to consider: do social dorms really need two Resident Counselors per dorm? Why are the RCs and their suitemates not counted towards the gender quota? Although the all-female floors in Morrow and Seligman do not contribute to the gender quotas of those dorms, I propose that an all-male floor should be looked into. The fact that an all-male does not exist goes against Amherst College’s mission of gender balance, and therefore negates the rationale for a gender quota in the first place.

In the end, decisions made by Res Life without sufficient student input have contributed to the unacceptable state of housing at Amherst College. A week has passed now since I made the decision at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday morning to live in a two-room double. A week has passed, and the rising senior reading this article coolly sips his or her coffee on a Wednesday morning in Val, forgetful of the horrors of room draw. A week has passed, and a select few rising juniors remain content; a minute flutter of happiness passes over them as they waltz past next year’s residence on a Friday or Saturday night.

However, over half of the student body remains the most optimistic of all: Next year! Yes, next year. A year older, a year wiser. And just like that, all animosity towards the room draw process and Amherst College’s abysmal Residential Life fades into the summer sun.