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The Case for Housing Reform

One of the most controversial topics at Harvard is social life. It is evident from the passions ignited that this is an issue about which many care deeply. However, the debate has largely centered around the College’s unrecognized single-gender social organizations—whose membership includes only a small fraction of students. Whether they are eliminated or tolerated, they will only ever directly affect a relatively small portion of the student body. Housing, however, affects nearly all undergraduates. It deserves much more attention than it has received, and there are steps the College should take to change it.

At its best, House and residential life can be a foundation for much of our undergraduate experience. However, it is not a system whose benefits are distributed equally among the students. The housing experience is far more negative for many of the of undergraduates who get randomly housed in the Quad, which comprises a quarter of the upperclass Houses. Some people truly love the Quad, and those who do not have the opportunity to apply for an interhouse transfer. To do that, however, many have to make the difficult choice between a blocking group and a River House. Even then, many of those applying to transfer will not be successful.

For a school that focuses so much on equality and fairness, especially with regard to social life—after all, exclusivity has been the lens through which the College has scrutinized the unrecognized single-gender social groups—there is a glaring absence of either in the housing lottery. Its random nature does not make up for that. It is fundamentally unfair that significantly worse housing options cost the same as significantly better ones, with no student choice involved. One might read what I’ve just written and argue that there is inequality among the River Houses too, and there is. But the minor inconvenience created by living in Dunster or Mather compared to Adams or Quincy, or the difference in newness—which will soon be gone—between the renovated and not yet renovated River Houses, pale in comparison to the headache of having to schedule your life around infrequent and often unreliable shuttles, losing the ability to go to your room between classes, and being often unable to eat in your own dining hall for lunch.

My proposed solution to this is quite simple: Redesign the housing lottery such that all sophomores live in the Quad and leave the randomization among the river houses for the two upper classes. This system is, of course, not without its own flaws, such as possibly creating distance between sophomores and older students, but its benefits outweigh those and any other drawbacks. This system would be infinitely more fair and equal for everyone involved, and it also could allow students more time to create or amend their blocking groups before settling into one for their final two years.

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Such a system is by no means perfect, but it’s a very straightforward fix for a problem that affects many more students than some of the other issues that get more of the College’s attention. This would be far more equitable, and it would create another collective experience shared by all Harvard students, similar to living in the Yard as freshmen. Moreover, it would also give students more time to form blocking groups, another cornerstone of Harvard social life. Even if this is not the best system, improving the student experience requires admitting that there may be better systems out there than the one we have now.

Jake R. Levene '18 is a Classics concentrator living in Dunster House.

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