The University’s contract for 2022-23 housing has been updated to include accommodations that will allow housing-insecure students to receive year-round lodging. This change was initiated largely by Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) Equity and Inclusion committee chair Heather Cassell ’24. The most updated housing contract was released in spring 2022.
Cassell began undertaking this project in February 2021 after she and her housemates, Jess Burks ’23 and Mo Andres ’24, were denied off-campus housing. All three are first-generation, low-income, and housing-insecure students, as well as Questbridge scholars. When the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) declared that housing insecurity was not a reason to approve the students’ request, they organized a campaign called #reformResLife.
The efforts of Cassell and her housemates culminated in a resolution passed by the WSA in February 2021, ensuring the right to housing security for all students at the University. Now, the accommodations called for in the resolution have been codified in the ResLife housing contract.
“Students whose needs are not met by the University’s existing housing options can request release from the housing contract,” the contract reads. “Typically, the only students who are released to off-campus status meet at least one of the following criteria: 25 years or older, married, have children, or require a specific housing-insecurity need or medical accommodation which cannot be met by campus housing.”
To receive accommodations, students must reach out to their class dean to clarify their housing needs. Because housing-insecurity accommodations were codified so recently, student petitions will be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on feasibility, regardless of original deadlines for requesting accommodations. The dean will take the lead on future conversations, minimizing the number of times students have to share potentially traumatic stories relating to their housing insecurity.
“In order to not rehash a bunch of trauma all the time, you just touch base with your dean,” Cassell said. “Your dean then knows your personal situation and vouches for your housing insecure status. Then the conversations about accommodations can be made directly with ResLife.”
Housing accommodations can be received in two ways: traditional and long-term. Both models provide year-round housing. In traditional accommodations, students follow the University’s housing model of graduated independence. They participate in housing selection (either through general room selection or application-based housing), move into summer housing, then move into academic housing once it is available. Students on this path may be required to move during winter break for maintenance reasons.
If students choose to pursue long-term housing, they begin by petitioning to move into a long-term housing unit such as an apartment or wood-frame house. Once this petition is approved, students move into their long-term housing unit during the summer and stay there for the remainder of their time at the University. Students on this path are only required to relocate if their housing unit requires significant maintenance.
Additionally, Cassell explained that housing-insecure students living in long-term residences will receive access to additional storage space in the attic and basement. This is especially useful for students who cannot drop off their belongings at home and must keep many belongings at the University.
“It’s been really helpful for us to have access to our attic because we are friends with other FGLI [First Generation and Low Income] students who can’t necessarily afford a storage unit, so we store stuff for our friends as well. It creates a community of mutual aid in that way,” Cassell said.
Cassell described how the University’s Posse Veterans Program acted as a blueprint for housing-insecurity accommodations. Both groups are recognized as nontraditional students and, therefore, should not be tied to the University’s standard housing system.
“[Housing-insecurity accommodations began] as kind of an offshoot of the posse vet program for housing, which is a recognition that they are not traditional students,” Cassell said. “Therefore recognizing that housing insecure students are not traditional students and that they are experts in their own needs, and those needs include reliable, stable housing.”
Director of ResLife Maureen Isleib explained that the University currently does not have a standardized definition of housing insecurity in order to allow students in different circumstances to receive the necessary accommodations.
“The university intentionally does not have a clear definition because there are so many different factors that can influence someone’s housing situation,” Isleib wrote in an email to The Argus. “The university also recognizes that it’s not stagnant, someone’s situation can change at any moment.”
Cassell elaborated that avoiding a strict definition of housing insecurity gives a diverse array of students access to accommodations.
“Housing insecure students are not just FGLI students,” Cassell said. “They are also students who are estranged from their families, even if their families have money, which often happens in the cases of queer students or trans students…. Another thing is that international students are often are in need of housing, as we have seen with the pandemic, and then the unreliable and also very expensive access to places like China and the recent complications that the Russian and Ukrainian war has started. There’s a lot of political and immigration issues that then render a lot of different students in need of housing.”
Fellow housing-insecure student Elijah Erskine ’24 shared Cassell, Burks, and Andres’ frustrations about the way housing-insecure students have been treated in the past.
“It’s…an equity problem,” Erskine said. “A lot of people casually have a stable place to stay, but that’s not everyone on campus and it really does make a difference when you don’t know where you’re gonna end up living and you don’t have much agency in it. It sticks us in this weird gray space where we’re all adults that can’t quite choose where we live…. It’s really important for everyone to actually have a place to stay if we’re all going to be doing work here.”
Cassell anticipates that more students learning about and pursuing these accommodations will foster greater equity at the University. She expressed happiness with the changes and is excited to see potential implications at the University and other institutions.
“[With] the updating of the ResLife website, there will be more information on how the institution of the University defines…housing insecurity,” Cassell said. “It starts at the basis of individual conversations and acknowledging that students are experts in their own lives. So then [in the future] not every student has to start a hashtag in order to get housing.”
Kat Struhar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.