Double-booked dorm rooms render returners nomadic

Alex Azuelos ’20 saw the warning signs right away when he went to retrieve his key to Raymond 518 from the Residential Operations Center. He related, “I told the guy my name and everything, and he’s looking through the keys, and his face looked a little concerned…he said, ‘So I don’t mean to alarm you,’ so I’m like, ‘Okay, this is going to be bad.’” Azuelos, who was returning from his semester abroad in Paris, learned that there was a chance the previous occupant had not moved out; indeed, when he arrived at the room, it was clearly occupied. In response, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct and Housing Rich Horowitz reassigned Azuelos to Raymond 411, an empty double, but with a catch: He was to refrain from unpacking, with the expectation that he could move into 518 after its last owner cleared out. Azuelos had ranked Raymond close to last on his housing application, and now he was being asked to live in a temporary situation there with no explanation as to why he could not keep the double-turned-single, or “dingle.” “I feel like that would be fair,” he said. “I was promised a room, and they didn’t give it to me, and now I’m getting punished for it by having to live out of my suitcase in this dingle.”

Azuelos was not the only returner to discover that their new home was already occupied. As Joshua Samolchuk ’20 wrapped up his semester abroad, he and a friend applied to live in a two-room double in Josselyn House; instead, Samolchuk was assigned to a TA. When he reached out to his friends and future housemates, however, he learned that someone was living in his room. Horowitz presented Samolchuk with a few choices, including a partially occupied suite or a Noyes single, of which he selected the latter. “The single is fine,” said Samolchuk, who had ranked Noyes eighth on his application. “Part of me was extra upset because…someone told me that if you’re on house team, you’ll get preference for being reassigned to that house after JYA, and I was on Joss house team last year.” He was further frustrated by the late timing, noting, “[I]t made me feel like…he’s throwing me wherever there’s room, and it’s going to be the worst room on campus that no one else wanted.”

Behind the scenes, Horowitz had been playing a daunting game of housing Tetris. This spring, Res Life had 159 applications from returners, with about 50 of those already assigned before January. Horowitz stressed the difficulty of accurately tracking room availability: Many students expecting to complete their coursework in December do not find out until mid-January whether they have passed their classes and thus whether or not they will need spring housing. What’s more, some JYA plans shift until the last minute. Addressing the seemingly pervasive problem of double-booking, Horowitz said, “It’s a very rare occurrence. Part of the reason it’s happening this year… is we’re running low on spaces.” The campus is currently at 97 to 98 percent capacity; minus first-year spaces, the number sits at 98 percent. One contributing factor to overcrowding is a lower number of students living off campus—84 this semester, down from numbers in the 90s and 100s. Horowitz attributes this to dining changes: The dropoff corresponds with the 2017–2018 implementation of mandatory meal plans for all class years, even seniors, who might previously have been tempted to both live and dine off campus. Moreover, several spaces have been taken off the market, including nearly 30 rooms in Main with inadequate egress. Some such issues remain undiscovered until January, when Horowitz, the sole administrator directly responsible for housing assignments, physically checks as many rooms as possible. He shared, “Jewett 809, we thought we could use, but when I went there and checked it out, it’s missing a wall, and there’s water pouring into this big bin. So we cannot use it.”

The returner placement process is inherently time-consuming because Horowitz performs it completely by hand—the effects of which returners saw this semester when he repeatedly pushed back the date for placements until Jan. 15, just a week before move-in. Horowitz eschews computer algorithms for spring placement because he feels they would ignore qualitative aspects, such as past house-team leadership. The house-specific model is another complicating factor: Horowitz observed, “The Vassar experience is tailored to foster a relationship between the houses, between the house fellows in the houses, between the advisors in the houses, between the people that live in that house,” and noted that if Res Life de-prioritized house allegiance, a computer-run approach would be easier to implement.

This semester, 74 percent of returners got their number-one room choice; 86 percent received their first or second choice; and 91 percent their first, second or third. Yet with no plans afoot (to Horowitz’s knowledge) to mitigate the lack of space, some students will continue to be disappointed—for example, the between six and 10 placed in what would be considered random single-equivalent spaces in partially occupied suites and TH or TA apartments. As Horowitz put it, “There’s no way for me to get an A+.”

Not all housing hurdles end on a low note. Returning from his semester abroad, Mack Liederman ’20 [Disclaimer: Liederman is a senior editor for The Miscellany News] was originally placed in Lathrop 135, but once he arrived, he learned that he was in a hallway reserved for language fellows, and his room was slated for a Russian post-grad moving in later that week. Horowitz was able to offer Liederman a double in Davison House and freeze the second bed as a courtesy for the inconvenience. Indeed, Liederman was vexed by the last-minute move: “I didn’t love lugging all my stuff in the dark across the quad to Davi on my first night…it wasn’t really a pleasant introduction back to school.” Horowitz was equally confounded, commenting, “For me not to be told that a language fellow was coming in is something that’s never happened before…it just kind of fell through the cracks.” Nonetheless, Liederman was ultimately satisfied. He related, “I’m very grateful to Res Life for sorting that out for me and giving me a comfortable situation. It took a little bit longer and was harder than I thought it would be, but I appreciate their patience.” In fact, Liederman’s room was one of only three spaces this year that were approved to have a bed frozen. Both of the others were five-person THs that unexpectedly had to accommodate four TA residents after flooding incidents.

Adele MacEwen ’20 also ended up pleased with her placement, but she found the road there to be chaotic. MacEwen, who was hoping to move out of Noyes for her third year but was placed in a double there, explained via email: “I found there were two first-years that live in the double I was assigned … After some brief chaos Rich assigned me to a single that had just opened in Lathrop.” Addressing the aggravation associated with not being guaranteed her own room, she said, “I also felt like JYA had put me at a disadvantage, which was frustrating. It was odd to have no issues getting a single as a sophomore and then have trouble as a junior.”

Doubtless, Vassar’s residential situation is constantly shifting from day to day and year to year, albeit in many ways for the worse— the number of room vacancies has dropped from 166 in Fall 2009 to approximately 66 today. Yet housing remains a matter not only of logistics but also of students’ fundamental well-being. Laura Zapien ’20, a returner who requested a Main suite and ended up in a Noyes single, commented via email: “Overall I ended up having a decent room, so I don’t have much to complain about. However, I feel bad for those students who were placed in terrible rooms last minute. Being able to return to your own room where you feel comfortable is so important for one own’s mental health in college. Everyone needs a room they can call home.”

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