Section: Opinion

Kenyon must take advantage of the pandemic to make housing more equitable

It’s no secret that, as Kenyon’s student population grows, the College faces the looming prospect of a campus housing crisis. This problem is escalating quickly, as the College must comply with the present need for socially distanced living spaces while also accommodating the roughly 100 additional students whose fall study abroad programs have been cancelled. 

Despite the pressing nature of the matter, discussions of housing at Kenyon all too often focus on this shortage of housing, and neglect to mention the housing system’s vast inequities, which disproportionately impact low-income and BIPOC students. (In fact, the housing shortage is itself a form of inequity.) As the College explores housing options for the upcoming semester, the administration must make a decision: Will it use this opportunity to make housing at Kenyon more equitable, or will it allow the pre-existing disparities among students to be exacerbated by pandemic-related housing restrictions? The College must do everything in its power to make the former true; if Kenyon does not make fair housing a priority now, when the failure to do so puts student lives at risk, then when will it? 

Kenyon’s housing system already favors those who are more economically privileged in a number of ways. Perhaps the most glaring of these mechanisms is the division housing program. Since many Greek organizations — fraternities in particular — have considerably high membership dues (according to Kenyon’s website, five of the six fraternities have dues over $300 per semester), division rooms are, for the most part, exclusive to those who can afford to be in these organizations. With the exception of those organizations living in Hanna, many division rooms in Leonard and Old Kenyon are singles, which cost more than doubles and triples. Though many organizations can provide scholarships and aid for students who otherwise may not be able to afford membership, they cannot subsidize room costs. This same privilege allows those in division housing, which was assigned last semester, to avoid the housing lottery and many of the current risks of living in smaller, unsanitary spaces; division rooms are among some of the most desirable dorm rooms on campus precisely because they are neither. 

Apartments are yet another example of inequitable housing at Kenyon. Because all rooms in apartments, double or single, are more costly, they have become largely limited to the economically privileged. Even if students have a high enough lottery number to get an apartment, they must be able to afford it—otherwise, they may have to yield that living space to a lower lottery number. In this way, the housing lottery, a system designed with fairness in mind, is by no means void of inequity.  

Most of Kenyon’s housing options are not wheelchair-accessible, either. Although the quasi- apartments on the first floors of Norton and Lewis are accessible, most buildings for non-first  years are not. With the exception of NCA 1, the only wheelchair-accessible living-space for upperclass students is Caples, and that is only true when the elevator is working (which is not always the case). Even then, because of its narrow hallways, small bathroom stalls and showers, Caples is hardly a viable option for anyone who is not able-bodied. 

All of this said, as the College explores new possibilities for housing this fall, several of the options on the table are ones which could worsen these pre-existing inequities. 

Most significantly, in a recent news bulletin, Kenyon asked those who live “within reasonable driving distance” to consider commuting to campus for class. Although it is true that the College is, understandably, struggling to find viable housing substitutes for this year, this option is a prescription for unfair housing. Many students from Knox County, where the median family income is $55,131, already feel alienated from the wealthy student body, whose median family income is $213,500. Asking these students to live at home would only intensify these feelings of isolation, aside from the fact that it would defeat the purpose of Kenyon being a completely residential campus, not to mention the cost of gas. Additionally, having these students commute puts them, their families and the entire campus at a greater risk for exposure, particularly with the College’s failure to clearly specify what it means to be “within reasonable driving distance” of campus. 

It is much easier to criticize the College for these mistakes than it is to propose solutions; the situation is by no means easy. However, this does not mean there are not reasonable things the College can do to avoid making housing even more inequitable.

First and foremost, Kenyon should have the same price for all housing options this semester. At this point, the College has not said whether the price difference between dorm rooms and apartments will continue this academic year. What they have said, however, is that they have chosen to add housing in Gambier and Mount Vernon and to move some students there. But how do we know Kenyon will not charge those students the typical apartment fee? Doing so would not simply be unjust, but it would leave students who cannot afford apartments more vulnerable to COVID-19, as they would share restrooms and common areas with more students than those in apartments. Setting a fixed price now could also set a precedent for housing at Kenyon after the pandemic, and would be a more equitable option for future students. In fact, several comparable small liberal arts colleges, such as Carleton College and Grinnell College, have a fixed price for all on-campus living options. Why Kenyon has not chosen this path as well is unclear. 

To further improve the safety of all students  — not just privileged ones — all rooms should be made singles during the pandemic. Because singles are the most expensive room type, those who cannot afford one (be it in a dorm or an apartment) will be more vulnerable to the virus, even if those rooms are deemed big enough for cohabitation.

The obvious question, then, is this: How and where can Kenyon house students safely and equitably? Any solution Kenyon considers at this moment should be made with the  future in mind. It is a waste of money — not only the College’s money, but frankly, students’ as well — to pay for housing that cannot be used to rectify the housing shortage in the coming years. 

Investing in equitable housing options now is synonymous with investing in equitable options for the future. Let us not forget that the New Apartments, which were first built in 1972, were not intended to be permanent accommodations. Bearing this in mind, it would not be surprising if any structures built to accommodate student housing during the pandemic became permanent fixtures on campus. If living arrangements provided now are lacking in amenities, cramped or unsanitary, they will not only stay this way but may also continue to deteriorate over time.

The solution, then, is to make housing options as a whole more desirable; equitable housing isn’t just about price, but also about what a space offers. And in our present moment, the things that make housing more desirable are the things that will keep students safe, including accessible laundry services and ample living space. 

Another option to remedy this issue, and create larger, more desirable living spaces could be to convert professors’ offices in the academic cottages into rooms. Since many professors will be conducting office hours remotely and many of the departments housed there are planning to move to the West Quad upon its completion, this is at least a feasible solution. In addition to the fact that these offices are spacious and are in a prime location, several of the buildings (such as Acland and Ralston Houses) already have showers and bathrooms in them. Many of the seminar rooms in these buildings will be too small to practice social distancing, and could be repurposed as well. 

Having laundry available in one’s building is often an important factor for students when choosing a place to live. If the College were to install laundry machines in every dorm, not only would they be more physically accessible and last into the future, but it would also limit the number of people in a given laundry facility. Additionally, students will likely be doing laundry more often, as they will be rewearing clothes less and will need to wash face masks regularly; the College should therefore provide laundry for free. Possible locations for laundry services include Gund Commons and the fourth floor of Leonard, as the fraternities with lounges there will likely not be able to gather safely.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making Kenyon’s housing system more equitable, both in the midst of the pandemic and moving forward. While I am no housing expert — and there may be unforeseen circumstances which make these proposals difficult — if the College considers this moment an opportunity rather than a challenge, equitable housing at Kenyon can become much more than a pipe dream.


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