Out of Housing and Home
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
For students who face housing insecurity, Columbia is as ruthless a landlord as any.
By Elysa Caso-McHugh
When we triumphantly read our acceptance letters from Columbia, none of us anticipates that a year or two later, we may be struggling to find a mattress to sleep on or deciding between paying our rent and buying groceries. We imagine that our struggles will be over once we walk through the gates, hang our posters with a roll of blue painter’s tape, and take on our first-year requirements.
We hope for the best but are often greeted with the worst. We beg for help, for support, to stay afloat, to have enough to eat, to have a place to sleep, and meet indignance from people at the top who pretend to know what low-income students face at their university but lack the will to change things.
This year, the students who already face the biggest housing obstacles have repeatedly been denied shelter on campus, even though they have demonstrated to the University that their home environments are not safe or secure. Some have opted to couch surf instead of moving back to high-risk circumstances. A student who asked to remain anonymous—B.F., CC ’22—explained to me, “Any kind of housing uncertainty is such a huge stressor that I think the school doesn't really think about.” They added, “Having them changing their plan every month or so made it impossible for me to actually even try and find something, because I didn't know if I was gonna have to move back ... I had no answers from them.”
One of the largest challenges is figuring out what to do during breaks—especially at Barnard, where winter housing costs a minimum of $500, on top of the rent students already pay. Over the summer, it is very difficult to get housing on campus without having an approved job, and even then, students run the risk of an oddly timed, precarious interim period that is nearly impossible to plan for. Last summer, the University did not guarantee any housing; plans for this summer have not been released, despite the fact that most undergraduates will enroll in summer courses as part of the University’s pandemic-driven three-semester schedule for the 2020-2021 school year.
As another anonymous CC ’21 student, K.S., remembered, financial aid does not cover summer housing. Last year, they were able to secure a room through a fellowship, supplementing the other half of their rent with a scholarship. “Thankfully, I had that as a backup,” they said. “But that in itself is an issue, you know?”
When the pandemic struck New York, they remembered articulating their exceptional circumstances to the University in hopes of receiving approval to stay on campus. “I was approved for that stay in Wallach until May,” they said. “And then, at that point, Columbia said that ... people [could] continue staying under extenuating circumstances, but that they were going to charge us $40 per night.”
They couldn’t afford the rent. “I think for a lot of us, we were very freaked out,” they remembered. They faced constant questions from international and first-generation, low income (FGLI) students about what would happen next. When the University announced that they would not offer summer housing, they had no choice. “I ended up moving out,” they said. “That was just not an option for me financially.”
Still reeling from a thwarted semester, students once again confronted the hurdle of homelessness. Thankfully, the student body is resourceful—a network of mutual aid and crowdfunding quickly emerged, which enabled me, among other students, to find a place and avoid facing the unbearably unsafe environment back home.
Julia Coccaro, BC ’22, who is taking a leave of absence, expressed similar frustration about this semester. (Students who take a semester off run the risk of losing guaranteed housing upon return, and of reduced financial aid.) “I don't understand where Barnard expects people to go during such short periods of time,” she said. In the August between her first and second years, she said, “I found a dog sitting job that allowed me to stay in that place for two and a half weeks, or however long was needed. It's ridiculous that I have to go to those lengths.”
Often, these poorly-timed interim periods feel like they could be easily avoided by better communication lines from administrators to students. The lack of information from the University is egregious for a school in the city with one of the country’s most volatile housing markets, not to mention one of its biggest homeless populations. When they need to change plans suddenly, because Columbia has not given them adequate time to prepare, students have to front costs for hotels or Airbnbs, or even break leases, which can adversely impact credit scores. Those students who can’t pay for emergency efforts out of pocket may end up on the street.
All the while, many students on campus must take on extra jobs that impact their studies just to pay for basic needs, exacerbating academic discrepancies across class lines. K.S. called this semester “overwhelming.” On top of their classes, they said, “I'm currently working four to five days a week, usually nights, up to 20 hours a week.”
B.F. also reflected on the difficult semester. “I had missed out on all the opportunities to get housing with anyone I knew in Minneapolis,” they told me. “And I had missed out on any opportunities to get housing with my friends from college in New York. And the fact ... that tuition was still the same price and that I didn’t really have the money to spare for [it] anyways ... I was just kind of stuck.” They spent the first few weeks of this semester couch-surfing.
I’m no stranger to the challenges these students face. In high school, I knew that the only way out of my unsafe household was to get into a school that was far enough away from home that my parents would no longer be able to control my life. I had faith in the institution I chose. They had made promises to me and my peers that we would be safe, and that low-income students would be given the resources to thrive on campus.
At Barnard, though, new struggles greeted me at every corner. I have been homeless twice since starting school, forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by. I have gone without meals and been forced to stay in dangerous living conditions, far from my family and those I love, simply to have a roof over my head. The unending fight to land on solid ground has taken an extraordinary amount of effort and energy.
The University handles graduate student housing with the same level of disregard and indifference. Columbia was willing to turn away graduate students unable to pay rent by not allowing them to register for classes or receive their diplomas. They can evict undergraduate students at any moment if they so desire, as they did in spring 2020.
Homelessness at American universities is something that people don’t like to discuss. Institutions like Columbia and Barnard have no public records on undergraduate housing insecurity, and very few on who uses resources like the student-run food pantries.
Still, it’s a raging problem. According to the Washington Post, which surveyed college students across the country, “Seventeen percent of students ... reported being homeless at some point in the previous year, 39 percent said they were food-insecure, and 46 percent said they faced some level of housing insecurity.”
The current system makes it extremely difficult for students to get the support they actually need. The Post explains, “Reasons that college students are facing insecurity in basic needs include the failure of Financial Aid to keep up with the cost of living and hesitancy among some employers to hire students who may have complicated schedules.” They provide limited support through grants that can barely cover the cost of living for a few months, and also evict students in times of crisis. The pandemic, of course, has exacerbated all of these realities.
Student housing insecurity and homelessness are not new problems, nor are they exclusive to Columbia. According to the April 2019 National #RealCollege Survey Report on “basic needs insecurity” in higher education, up to 48% of students at four-year institutions surveyed had identified that they had faced some form of housing insecurity, and 14% of students identified that they had been homeless in the past or were currently experiencing homelessness.
People know that plenty of Columbia students face housing insecurity, but somehow this reality has become an exception to Columbia’s fulfillment of its ideals. Shouldn’t the constant struggles of homelessness, making rent on time, and simply not having basic needs met fit into the professed mission of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion? How can Columbia say it is making education accessible when it puts its most vulnerable community members in the position of studying, working, and living in nearly impossible conditions of precariousness?
Year after year, Columbia deems this issue low on its list of priorities—as administrators focus on things like public safety and expanding real estate, they refuse to keep their students safe or provide them with sufficient housing arrangements. There exist no major initiatives to help combat this phenomenon, only small grants that don’t provide as much aid as they claim to; nor are there any administrators who push to acknowledge and combat housing insecurity and homelessness among the University’s students through public records or surveys. That K.S. needs to work an additional three jobs just to scrape by only shows that the resources the University does provide don’t stretch very far. And many people, myself included, have had to opt for less safe, but cheaper, living situations in order to make those resources last just a little longer.
“I would give anything to be able to take a semester off right now, like all of my peers are doing,” K.S. told me. But they would lose their housing stipend if they did so, and they can’t afford rent otherwise. They would also lose their multiple University jobs. In short, they said, “I would be screwed over royally.”