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Op-eds, Opinions

Pollard ’21: Flawed housing policies and Brown’s broken commitments to transparency in communications

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Prior to students’ return to campus this fall, the University has upheld its policy requiring students to spend six semesters living on campus, and promised to uphold their agreement to house all students who request it. In light of COVID-19, the University has guaranteed that all students returning to live on campus will be housed “based on single room occupancy” with the goal of “de-densifying” residential spaces. 

Unfortunately, since the release of Brown’s “Plan for a Healthy and Safe 2020-21statement on July 7, the University’s commitments to “transparency” and to “developing plans with the goal of maintaining the financial well-being of students and employees” have been repeatedly broken. Specifically, as undergraduate students attempt to plan for the fall semester, the Office of Residential Life’s housing policies have been frustratingly inconsistent. According to the Undergraduate Council of Students, 41 percent of students have listed residential halls in their top four concerns about returning to campus. They are right to be concerned, according to health guidelines from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University. Without access to kitchens, students will be dependent on grab-and-go meals from dining halls; those with dietary restrictions face the added stress of whether or not they can trust the food they are given. Bathrooms are to be cleaned more frequently, though considerations of facilities staff hazard pay and overtime wages are absent from the administration’s public correspondences. 

ResLife promised to release housing information for students on campus Aug. 10, but to date students have yet to receive their assignments. Furthermore, in correspondences to the Brown community on August 11th, the University released new plans about staggering student arrivals through September. Initially, August 10th left very little time for students to start creating their housing group’s own internal policies surrounding cleaning, guests and bathroom use. Now, students have to manage the added confusions of living in housing pods in which new people will be quarantining for fourteen days throughout September. Managing one’s housing pod is difficult in the best of circumstances. While Brown’s new arrival plans are safer in theory, the University’s inability to communicate this plan until mid-August is problematic for students who are already facing serious planning issues such as transportation to campus. 

Additionally, housing assignments are made considering only one of two factors: “either the style of housing (suite/apartment or non-suite/apartment) or being assigned near another student who has mutually requested to be assigned near you.” Since ResLife cannot provide students with the ability to even anticipate — let alone plan — what their personal facilities and housing group will be, many students are finding it difficult to trust the University right now. In my own experiences living exclusively with college students in closed-loop social isolation bubbles, building trust and mutual accountability is critical to the success of the pod and necessary for maintaining mental health. It takes time, and without information about those with whom they would share high-risk spaces, many students are forced to choose between studying remotely or risk a housing situation that accommodates neither their needs nor their safety. 

Even with the trimester system and the option of attending classes remotely, the University admitted in an email correspondence to rising juniors in July that they did not anticipate having the necessary space to provide students with enough single-person housing on campus. Even though they have now successfully addressed this specific issue by going back on their word to juniors seeking off-campus permission, each single room still does not have the necessary facilities like a private kitchen and bathroom that would be necessary, according to the CDC, to fully prevent spreading the virus amongst asymptomatic carriers. 

Furthermore, the University has yet to release a comprehensive explanation of how self-isolation housing will quarantine potentially infected students. The University claims that students, when waiting for test results or quarantining, will be moved to alternative housing which “should at a minimum include a single room with its own adjoining bathroom,” though information on where these rooms are, and how students will safely move remain absent. Still, the details released on August 11th in the University’s “Campus Safety Policy” about students’ isolation practices remain vague, mentioning that students will be “directed to ‘isolate’ from others” and that multiple services like Dining, facilities, and EMS have “partnered to ensure that students are supported.” No further plans have been released regarding potential evacuation or outbreak containment. 

The University claims to “follow at all times guidance from the CDC and RIDOH,” yet the lack of single-user bathrooms and the overall absence of clear plans for students who need to quarantine blatantly undermines this claim. Multiple students believe that reopening campus under the current plan will inevitably go awry, even with staggered arrivals.

To date, ResLife has not told students about the ratio of students to bathrooms, or how the minor access to kitchen storage will be organized. Understandably skeptical of on-campus housing, rising juniors lined up for the newly rolled out off-campus permission waitlist in June in the hopes of bypassing the stressors associated with living on campus. Therefore, some students were planning to return to Providence to live off-campus regardless of whether or not they had permission to do so.

Without a clear date on when they would be given or denied off-campus permission from the June waitlist, rising juniors struggled to make any plans. Volunteers at ResLife answered multiple calls without the authority to release any information and couldn’t provide students with any number more specific than that “over 350” students were on this waitlist. They were also unable to assist students in planning by giving them any sense of how many people might be allowed off, though the creation and maintenance of such a list certainly implies that at least some people would be granted permission.

Shockingly, On July 24th, ResLife emailed students on the waitlist that no one would be given off-campus permission at that time. The Location of Study Form was closed, and they were automatically assigned to live on campus. These juniors received an email from ResLife containing the following:

“…we were uncertain prior to the deadline for submission of the Fall 2020 Location of Study Form if we would be able to meet the demand for on-campus housing among all students who require it … For this reason, we opened a new waitlist for students to indicate interest in off-campus permission. Because we now know that we will be able to meet the requirements both for students covered by the housing requirement and seniors who have requested on campus housing, we have closed this waitlist and are not extending additional off-campus permission.”

Students were not informed until after committing to their preferences that the new off-campus waitlist was created to inform ResLife of whether or not their on-campus capacity would be filled. At this point, all Juniors who were denied off-campus permission were automatically re-assigned to on-campus housing, as they had been unable to mark “attending remotely” as their second choice preference. As such, some students decided to simply deal with living on campus, while others fought through multiple phone calls with ResLife volunteers to re-registered as remote students so that they could either live at home, or live in Providence secretly.

On August 11th, ResLife once again changed their policy without warning. All students previously on the June waitlist have now been granted off-campus permission. Less than a month before classes begin, students must reorganize their off-campus living situations, which includes re-negotiating sublet situations, and having tough conversations about which lessees will return, in order to abide by the city’s restrictions on college students living together.

The multiple miscommunications about off-campus permission by the University have had grave effects on students’ financial well being and planning stress. Students have a time-sensitive need to prepare for a living situation that keeps them safe from COVID-19, but they have both lacked critical information on the nature of their assigned university housing and have had the University go back on their word twice, making it nearly impossible to plan ahead.

Furthermore, students have discussed in online forums that granting widespread off-campus permission can have detrimental long-term effects on the gentrification and rent prices of the Fox Point area. Many have mentioned this as a reason for choosing to study remotely instead of trying to get off-campus permission, though such considerations for the Providence community have been absent from University correspondences. 

Brown’s housing policies make it unnecessarily difficult for students to follow health guidelines. The University’s contradictory communications about students living off campus is creating additional financial and mental strain. In order to both contain the spread of COVID-19 and support the University’s financial priorities, Brown is demanding blind cooperation from its students without extending the trust necessary for a productive relationship with the institution. We will all be signing attestations that we will “follow required public health practices, and that (we) understand that disregard of public health practices is a conduct violation that could result in removal from campus.” How could we possibly follow required public health practices if the University will not allow us what we need to do so in terms of on-campus self-isolation? How can students properly plan ahead to live responsibly to stop the spread of COVID-19? I predict that when an outbreak does occur on campus, policies like these will be used to avoid the University’s liability and instead blame the behavior of students who tried to live within the administration’s unrealistic restrictions. 

Beth Pollard ’21 can be reached at beth_pollard@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Hi Beth,
    I hope you’re open-minded enough to reconsider your views on gentrification. In fact, according to this Economist article, it’s a good thing, particularly for poorer people and people of color:
    Urban myths
    In praise of gentrification
    Accusations levelled at gentrification in America lack force, meanwhile its benefits go unsung

    United States
    Jun 21st 2018 edition

    Jun 21st 2018
    NEW YORK, OAKLAND AND WASHINGTON, DC

    GENTRIFIER has surpassed many worthier slurs to become the dirtiest word in American cities. In the popular telling, hordes of well-to-do whites are descending upon poor, minority neighbourhoods that were made to endure decades of discrimination. With their avocado on toast, beard oil and cappuccinos, these people snuff out local culture. As rents rise, lifelong residents are evicted and forced to leave. In this view, the quintessential scene might be one witnessed in Oakland, California, where a miserable-looking homeless encampment rests a mere ten-minute walk from a Whole Foods landscaped with palm trees and bougainvillea, offering chia and flax seed upon entry. An ancient, sinister force lurks behind the overpriced produce. “‘Gentrification’ is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is “the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years.”

    This story is better described as an urban myth. The supposed ills of gentrification—which might be more neutrally defined as poorer urban neighbourhoods becoming wealthier—lack rigorous support. The most careful empirical analyses conducted by urban economists have failed to detect a rise in displacement within gentrifying neighbourhoods. Often, they find that poor residents are more likely to stay put if they live in these areas. At the same time, the benefits of gentrification are scarcely considered. Longtime residents reap the rewards of reduced crime and better amenities. Those lucky enough to own their homes come out richer. The left usually bemoans the lack of investment in historically non-white neighbourhoods, white flight from city centres and economic segregation. Yet gentrification straightforwardly reverses each of those regrettable trends.

    One in, none out
    The anti-gentrification brigades often cite anecdotes from residents forced to move. Yet the data suggest a different story. An influential study by Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi found that poor residents living in New York’s gentrifying neighbourhoods during the 1990s were actually less likely to move than poor residents of non-gentrifying areas. A follow-up study by Mr Freeman, using a nationwide sample, found scant association between gentrification and displacement. A more recent examination found that financially vulnerable residents in Philadelphia—those with low credit scores and no mortgages—are no more likely to move if they live in a gentrifying neighbourhood.

    These studies undermine the widely held belief that for every horrid kale-munching millennial moving in, one longtime resident must be chucked out. The surprising result is explained by three underlying trends.

    The first is that poor Americans are obliged to move very frequently, regardless of the circumstances of their district, as the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond so harrowingly demonstrated in his research on eviction. The second is that poor neighbourhoods have lacked investment for decades, and so have considerable slack in their commercial and residential property markets. A lot of wealthier city dwellers can thus move in without pushing out incumbent residents or businesses. “Given the typical pattern of low-income renter mobility in New York City, a neighbourhood could go from a 30% poverty population to 12% in as few as ten years without any displacement whatsoever,” noted Messrs Freeman and Braconi in their study. Indeed, the number of poor people living in New York’s gentrifying neighbourhoods barely budged from 1990 to 2014, according to a study by New York University’s Furman Centre. Third, city governments often promote affordable-housing schemes, such as rent control or stabilisation, in response to rising rents.

    Gentrification has been so thoroughly demonised that a mere discussion of its benefits might seem subversive. That does not make them any less real. Residents of gentrifying neighbourhoods who own their homes have reaped considerable windfalls. One black resident of Logan Circle, a residential district in downtown Washington, bought his home in 1993 for $130,000. He recently sold it for $1.6m. Businesses gain from having more customers, with more to spend. Having new shops, like well-stocked grocery stores, and sources of employment nearby can reduce commuting costs and time. Tax collection surges and so does political clout. Crime, already on the decline in American city centres, seems to fall even further in gentrifying neighbourhoods, as MIT economists observed after Cambridge, Massachusetts, undid its rent-control scheme.

    Those who bemoan segregation and gentrification simultaneously risk contradiction. The introduction of affluent, white residents into poor, minority districts boosts racial and economic integration. It can dilute the concentration of poverty—which a mountain of economic and sociological literature has linked to all manner of poor outcomes, including teenage pregnancy, incarceration and early death. Gentrification steers cash into deprived neighbourhoods and brings people into depopulated areas through market forces, all without the necessity of governmental intervention. The Trump administration is unlikely to offer large infusions of cash to dilapidated cities. In these circumstances, arguing against gentrification can amount to insistence that poor neighbourhoods remain poor and that racially segregated neighbourhoods stay cut off.

    What, then, accounts for the antipathy towards gentrification? The first reason is financial. Though the process has been going on for a few decades, the increased attention comes in the middle of a broader concern about the cost of housing in American cities. The share of households that are “rent burdened”—those spending more than 30% of pre-tax income on rent—has increased from 32% in 2001 to 38% in 2015. Things are worse among the poor; 52% of those below the federal poverty line spend over half their income on housing. Rents have risen dramatically, though this can be the fault of thoughtless regulations which hinder supply more than the malevolence of gentrifiers. The net creation of jobs has outpaced additional housing in New York City by a rate of two to one. In San Francisco, perhaps the most restricted American metropolitan area, this ratio is eight to one.

    A second reason gentrification is disliked is culture. The argument is that the arrival of yuppie professionals sipping kombucha will alter the character of a place in an unseemly way. “Don’t Brooklyn my Detroit” T-shirts are now a common sight in Motor City. In truth, Detroit would do well with a bit more Brooklyn. Across big American cities, for every gentrifying neighbourhood ten remain poor. Opposing gentrification has become a way for people to display their anti-racist bona fides. This leads to the exaggerated equation of gentrification with white supremacy. Such objections parallel those made by white NIMBYs who fret that a new bus stop or apartment complex will bring people who might also alter the culture of their neighbourhood—for the worse.

    Porcini progressives
    The term gentrification has become tarred. But called by any other name—revitalisation, reinvestment, renaissance—it would smell sweet. Take Shaw, a historical centre of black culture in Washington which limped into the 1970s as a shadow of itself after a series of race riots. Decades of decline followed, in which a crack epidemic caused the murder rate to spike. Today, crime is down. The O Street Market, where one person was killed and eight were injured in a shoot-out in 1994, is now a tranquil grocery store. Luxury flats with angular chairs and oversized espresso machines in the lobby have sprouted opposite liquor stores. An avant-garde speakeasy beckons from the basement beneath a humble doughnut store. At the Columbia Room, a wood-panelled bar with leather chairs, mixologists conjure $16 concoctions of scotch, blackberry shrub and porcini mushrooms. This is how progress tastes.

    Recommended
    SPECIAL REPORT
    Separate, downtrodden

    SPECIAL REPORT
    American poverty is moving from the cities to the suburbs

    UNITED STATES
    Recruits to America’s armed forces are not what they used to be

    This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “In praise of gentrification”

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