Nov

11

From the Issue: Schrödinger’s Dorm Room

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Keep your eyes open for the October issue of The Blue & White, which, after a delay from the printers, has finally arrived to campus! In the meantime, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: Knickerbocker Motorsports: a surprisingly gripping history, an examination of Columbia’s updated sexual assault policy, and the festive search for magic on campus. This month, contributor Austin Williams tells you why the Columbia housing shortage does and does not exist.

Illustration by Marie Nganele

If you take the number of deed listings in New York City’s ACRIS property database as a proxy for power, three men emerge as the synecdochic kings of New York real estate: Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, Michael Rubens Bloomberg, and Lee Carroll Bollinger. That is, the Pope, the Mayor, and the 19th President of Columbia University. Our institution, placing third behind the City of New York and the Catholic Church, owns a hell of a lot of the most coveted real estate on earth. Scores of city lots, the vast majority of them on the isle of Manhattan, are under the control of the Trustees. Yet you or someone you know was forced into Plimpton.

Maybe they had a bad lottery number. Maybe their group fell apart in suite selection. Bottom line, Columbia’s promise of four years of guaranteed housing sometimes yields a the lonely life of a Plimptonian instead of the cozy experience of Ruggles.

This is only one symptom of an unpredictable, and somewhat unsavory, last minute solution to the crisis of an undergraduate housing shortage. The signs are everywhere: your laziest friends take the 1 to class from their 89 sq ft plot in the recently-acquired Harmony Hall (because it’s cheaper than a cab); and your author, who took leave and thus forsook his four year guaranteed housing birthright, couldn’t even snag a Wien single.

The University, through Scott Wright, Vice President of Student Auxiliary and Business Services, does not deny it’s a problem. “There is a shortage of undergraduate housing—that’s not just a perception, that’s a reality—and to compensate for that shortage what we do is create what we loosely refer to as ‘temporary beds.’” These temporary beds are the rooms in places like Barnard’s Plimpton, or in University Apartment Housing (residence units in Morningside, but also in Washington Heights, Manhattan Valley, and Riverdale, usually reserved for graduate, General Studies, fellows, and faculty or staff), or in the East Campus hotel traditionally for university guests, where you will eat, sleep, study, get drunk, and make one or many kinds of love for the nine-month academic year. These beds are temporary only in the long, administrative view. To the Columbians who inhabit them, temporary beds are as good as permanent.

Hadi Elzayn, CC ’13, lives in Plimpton. It is not the East Campus suite his eight-person group had hoped for, but he and four of his pals are happy there. There are the usual hallway conflicts caused by loud parties and thin walls, but he claims his Barnard lodging presents no special problems. I would have believed him, but then I got trapped in Plimpton. I interviewed Hadi in his 2nd floor kitchen after surrendering my CUID at the front desk. Barnard-Columbia access policies, long bemoaned, take on an especially annoying dimension in a situation like Hadi’s. When he and I had finished talking I went back to the foyer to reclaim my ID, only to be told my host had to be present for this exceedingly important transaction. You know this story. These “temporary beds” are far from ideal arrangements.

Consider also the case of the 38 undergraduates who currently live in University Apartment Housing. This is the first year that Housing has had to resort to this unusual dispersion, and the building has no RA, which is a particular liability for the University.  Of more concern to the lottery losers themselves is the fact that their residential experience will be completely removed from those of the inhabitants of any established undergraduate buildings. They have a place to live, but not the community their classmates enjoy. Their rooms are not grouped together in a suite and they are not contiguous. For some, seclusion may be welcome, but given the chronic complaint of an undergraduate community that is disjointed and dispersed—if not downright depressed—it’s more likely to rub salt into old wounds.

The eviction of the three fraternities from their brownstones last spring is an easy scapegoat for this year’s shortage of beds, though the blame is ill-placed. Simply because the fraternity students were tossed into the Housing Lottery and may have strained it more than it expected, Housing not only renovated and placed students within the brownstones, but also opened up a new brownstone on 114th for inclusion in the lottery. After all of this, the inflow of fraternity students to the lottery should have been completely mitigated, yet the university still struggled to find living accommodations for its students.

This points to a longer-term, explicit plan by the university to expand the undergraduate population of the college by 15 to 20 percent in the long term, the early stages of which have been evident in enrollment numbers over the last several years.

But the most peculiar feature of the whole crisis is that, in the strictest sense, it does not exist. Scott Wright explains the paradox: “All told it’s about 62 different [temporary] beds. Now the reason for that is that on Labor Day when everybody comes back right before the start of school, that is the single fullest day of housing that we have, and as we sit here today, six weeks later, we have 64 vacancies in housing.” This is not an anomaly, and has been the case not only this October, but for at least the last ten. Year after year so many Columbians simply don’t stick around. Some never even show up. Either way, beds open up, and remain open either for the fall semester or for the entire year.

The University knows that it cannot depend on these uncertainties to ensure that everyone gets housed, and appears to be taking action. Along with the addition of Harmony Hall (a former Law School and GSAS housing option plucked off for the preference of undergraduates, part of a larger story of GS and Graduate student housing being consumed in measures to accommodate undergraduate growth despite universal expansion by the university), the University announced this month the acquisition of three new brownstones. The trio on 114th, formerly of St. Hilda’s House convent, will be made available for use by special interest housing groups starting in the fall of 2013.

These recent acquisitions remain short-term emergency solutions, rather than a comprehensive and well-reasoned plan for the future (as is the planned expansion of the undergraduate body). It seems that Columbia wants to hold its student to bed ratio as close to 1:1 as possible. If that ratio can’t be 1:1, then Columbia would rather it be higher than lower. Empty beds cost money, and it may be a purely economic decision to sacrifice the happiness of a few unfortunate undergrads each fall, with the caveat that the really unhappy ones may apply to transfer to rooms made vacant by deserters. Because of the October drop off, having enough housing on Labor Day means having too much housing by Halloween. We won’t know for sure if the system can be improved until the class size expansion is complete—if it ever is. But there may still be, year in and year out, Columbians in Plimpton and UAH and other unforeseen, strange, and inconvenient arrangements.

Best of luck in the lottery.

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Columbia either needs to make the classes smaller, or build and renovate other nearby housing and properties.

  2. Anonymous

    I pity those poor, poor souls who have to live in Washington Heights. Especially at Columbia housing prices.

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