A House Divided

Two years on, checking up with Special Interest Community House
by Sean Augustine-Obi

Depending on who you ask, the housing arrangements known as Special Interest Communities, or SICs, have different reputations. For first-years facing the potential doom of living in a Wien double, they’re a way out. Spectator columnists have cited them as a panacea for students’ feelings of isolation on campus, in the same vein as residential colleges at Harvard or Yale. And budding conspiracy theorists have speculated that SICs are university-backed attempts to replace Greek life. But a look around a typical floor lounge on a typical night at SIC House—where ADI House, Manhattan House, Creative Commons, and Wellness House call home— reveals something much like a regular dorm, its residents seemingly having opted into more of a marriage of convenience than a model of convivial cohabitation.

 

Though SICs have existed for several years, the notion of a building comprised solely of them is a more recent development. In Fall 2011, in response to rising undergraduate enrollment, the university converted a brownstone on 113th Street called the Convent into a dorm with 78 beds for SICs. Instead of entering the housing lottery, students would apply to form a community with the expectation that they’d foster its well-being through events and collaboration.

 

UnConventional Housing

While the brownstone presented a practical solution to Columbia’s space woes, it also served well for public relations. Two years prior, a drug bust thrust three fraternities into the international spotlight and led to their expulsion from their houses. By using the Convent to house SICs, administrators could kill two birds with one stone: providing students the feel of a frat house without the potential controversies, and putting to rest the perennial dialogue about lack of community on campus. Thendean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez was particularly keen on the SICs idea, according to reports which say she pushed it through.

 

Five groups were chosen to live in the house, but not without controversy. Given the perceived goals of the project, it was counterintuitive to reject applications from large organizations with pre-existing social scenes like CIRCA, and completely close off applications from well-behaved frats who had missed the cut for the three vacated brownstones earlier in the year. Phi Gamma Delta, for example, had solid philanthropy and community service credentials, and no major disciplinary violations in past years—a far cry from the drug bust. “This makes absolutely no sense,” said a well-received comment (one of 103) on the Bwog post announcing the decisions.

 

However, as the membership and culture of the house has taken shape, the idea that it might once have been intended as a social hub has been forgotten. Now, the community has different, more inwardlooking aims.

 

Strange Bedfellows

Two years on, the communities in SIC House have a muted presence on campus. “When you mention SICs, no one really knows we exist,” said Wellness House coordinator Steffany Moreno, CC ’17. It’s no EC.

 

This lack of recognizability in part led to a 2014 Spectator editorial calling for SIC vitality to be more rigorously assessed. It argued that SICs have the potential to be “instrumental parts” of the community beyond their residents, but should be held accountable for how their space is used, like Greek organizations. Current guidelines for SICs are significantly less stringent than those for fraternities, and only mildly stricter than those of, say, the LLC: the SICs in SIC House are required to register and host three events a semester, attend a two-day orientation, recruit enough members, and draft and abide by set community standards to maintain their standing.

 

But asking SICs to be held to the same standard as Greek chapters is a false equivalence. The editorial ignores that the latter enjoy the backing of national organizations, collect membership dues, and have been an established part of the campus social scene for decades. SIC House, meanwhile, is still in its infancy, and its budget reflects that. And while both SICs and Greek houses have a similar number of occupants (about 10-15), Greek organizations benefit from counting non-residents among their membership whereas the number of members per SIC stops at the number of beds available.

 

With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine an SIC House event getting enough attendance to take campus by storm. But why would it need to? With Greek membership at 15 percent and continuously growing, it seems that students interested in the social aspects of fraternities and sororities already have communities to fill that niche. According to many SIC House residents, the SICs’ strength lies in how they serve, and strengthen, their own small communities, rather than campus at large.

 

To Moreno, Wellness House is simply a family that supports each other—like the ideal form of a Greek organization, without all the pledging rituals to get there. Fitting the needs of its constituency, Wellness House shunned large parties, instead opting to host wellness-themed study breaks alongside Metta House and Active Minds. “We wanted to create an environment where we could have an open and honest conversation about wellness,” she says. “That’s really all it is.” And that’s hard to do in a frat basement on a Friday night.

 

For ADI House manager Evan Tarrh, CC ’17, the SIC space also functions as a hub of creativity. “It’s motivating to be surrounded by people that share your interests,” he says.

 

In October, Tarrh organized a House Hack Week where members spent a few hours each day to develop programs that would benefit life in the house.

 

Hostel Conditions?

Though most of the communities in SIC House have thrived, the project has not been without its setbacks. ADI House expanded to the first floor of the building, only to reverse the decision a year later in favor of keeping all their members in the same space. Pre-Health House, which resided on the second floor from 2013 to 2015, was disbanded in April after being unable to fill their beds. Rumors abound that other SICs, too, have struggled to get enough members to sustain themselves.

 

With Pre-Health House gone, this summer the administration decided to fill the first two floors with transfer students. These transfers aren’t assigned to any one community, though Moreno and Tarrh said they’re welcome to attend SIC events. Since transfers here tend to hang out mostly with one another anyway, perhaps putting them all together to create a kind of transfer-interest microcommunity makes sense. But the move does call into question the sustainability of the SIC model. While it’s true that the number of applications to each SIC fluctuates each year—meaning Pre-Health House could have just had a rough year—the transfer influx seems to suggest that not enough students are interested in forming new SICs to justify expansion of the model.

 

Where does that leave SIC House? Perhaps it’s just the wrong solution to a very real problem. The lack of “community” in a typical collegiate sense is an issue bemoaned by students and administrators alike. But as the SIC House adventure demonstrates, often administrative goals don’t line up with what students on the ground actually want. Where social clubs saw an analogue to a fraternity house, administrators saw a way to curtail frats’ monopoly on brownstones. Where administrators saw an opportunity to program community development, the students who would eventually reside in the house merely wanted an environment that felt like home. And that’s just what it is—for now.