Columns

Friedman ’19: Housing lottery harms ‘dorm-estic’ living

By
staff columnist
Thursday, September 22, 2016

Returning home for the summer after spending a year at Brown was difficult. Despite the inconveniences of living in a dorm, I realized this summer that, in some ways, I preferred it. Life in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas where all of my friends are at least a 15-minute drive away, is vastly different from life in North Wayland, where the effort required to visit a friend comprised a 2-second walk across the hall. Whereas it took a week’s worth of organizing efforts via iMessage to gather a group of friends for dinner in Texas, at Brown it only took one GroupMe message to organize a Unit 14 outing. Living in Wayland facilitated friendships that might not have materialized otherwise, as living in close quarters made getting people together exponentially easier.

Sadly, I entered the housing lottery separate from my unit last spring and received an assignment in Perkins Hall this year, which, needless to say, was not among my first-choice preferences. Most of my North Wayland friends are scattered across campus. In order to visit any of them now, I have to trek across campus and wait for friends to let me in. Now I only see my roommate from last year if we both happen to be playing Pokémon Go at the same time on Wriston Quad. Though these distances are minuscule compared to those I had to travel in Dallas, they take the same amount of time to traverse without a car.

As it stands, the friendships I enjoyed and spent nine months cultivating last year are in jeopardy of becoming acquaintanceships, in large part because of Brown’s flawed housing system. Housing after freshman year is determined by one’s place in a random housing lottery, which requires that housing groups larger than 10 partition themselves. This stipulation, combined with the possibility that an existing housing group could be split up because of shortages in a particular location, frequently separates and scatters friend groups across campus. This creates geographic obstacles that ultimately weaken valuable relationships. No wonder the members of many sports teams, clubs and organizations opt out of the housing lottery as soon as they receive university permission to live off-campus. This loss of geographic proximity means a loss in the frequency of serendipitous conversation.

It seems that Brown, and more specifically the Office of Residential Life, unwittingly diminishes the social lives of its students by utilizing a lottery system that undervalues the power of geography to make or break relationships. The fact that ResLife maintains this system despite the obvious advantages of introducing alternative systems demonstrates a level of complacency that is difficult to accept. Many universities, including Harvard, Yale, Washington University in St. Louis and Rice University, organize student housing using residential colleges. This system generally places students into what is functionally an apartment complex where they live for most or all of their college years, enabling students to invest time into their “dorm-estic” social lives without the anxiety of a future reshuffling of their housing. My friends at Yale and WashU are posting Facebook photos with the same friends as last year, whereas my friends at most other colleges and I have found new friends or have explored other social living situations like fraternities or sororities.

Despite the obvious benefits of residential colleges, Brown would be hard-pressed to mimic the model exactly, as finding or agglomerating the required amount of contiguous land on the East Side of Providence (given the nature of local real estate) and financing the project (given our relatively small endowment) would be difficult. Instead, I suggest that ResLife grant students the right of first refusal with regard to housing; this essentially amounts to offering returning students the right to choose whether to live in their first-year dorm before incoming first-years are offered a choice. Were this policy implemented, I predict the quality of first-year housing would, on average, decline initially, but overall student satisfaction would rise because of a higher rate of proximity to friends. Though the ROFR policy implies the end of a long-standing, if unofficial, practice of giving first-years Brown’s best housing to increase the first-year retention rate, the proposed policy change would encourage the University to retain first-years by improving other aspects of student life.

Though ResLife has not implemented a housing system that transcends the unpredictability of annual lottery cycles, members of many organizations on campus have made a conscious decision to live together for more than a year. Fraternities and sororities continue to maintain houses on campus, and many sports teams collectively lease houses off-campus. Private development firms like Gilbane, Inc. have even capitalized on ResLife’s shortcomings with developments like 257 Thayer, which amounted to buying six to eight houses off Thayer Street and building apartments not subject to the housing lottery. The tremendous amount of demonstrated interest in more permanent housing systems makes ResLife’s inaction that much more disappointing.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at andrew_friedman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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