Does Barnard Have a Housing Problem?

Does Barnard Have a Housing Problem?

And Can It Be Fixed?

Published on October 26, 2017

If you ask any incoming student why they chose to come to Barnard College, you might hear about the close-knit community, the challenging academics, the wonderful resources of the city, and the top-tier university at your fingertips.

I chose to come here because of Elliott Hall.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but when Barnard’s transfer application asked me what factors influenced my decision to apply to Barnard College, I devoted 25 of the 250 words allowed by the Common App to talk about the space in one of Barnard’s dormitories that tends to house transfer students.

I knew that there was no guarantee of housing for transfer students. Still, I clung to the description of Elliott Hall’s population (“96 upperclass students, mostly Sophomores & Juniors (including transfer students)”) on ResLife’s website and took that parenthetical shout-out as an indication that (to quote my own cringey application) “Barnard seems to really appreciate and welcome its transfer students,” and that “students won’t be alone in their transition.”

That being said, the possibility of not getting any on-campus housing—let alone in Elliott Hall—was very real for me. With a home address in Hartford, Connecticut, I technically live in the Tri-State Area, albeit over three hours away by bus or train. When housing allotment is in part determined by distance to Barnard, the close proximity of my home could have bumped me off the list of transfers receiving housing.

Entrance to Elliot Hall

I got lucky: By the end of July, I had received a guarantee that I would live somewhere on campus; it was unclear as to where, but at least I didn’t have to commute. In August I found out I would live in Cathedral Gardens.

Clocking in at 17 minutes by foot, CG is the furthest Barnard dorm from campus (the rest are all within two to 10 minutes of any Barnard classroom). But, I was grateful to have Barnard helping me out with housing at all, so I took it.

My positive experience with housing in fall 2016 is largely the result of two things. One: The math worked out so that a favorable number of upper-class students were not living on campus that semester. Two: In 2006, with the establishment of the Cathedral Gardens dormitory, Barnard decided to continue pushing itself out into the greater Morningside Heights community in order to create more housing space for its students.

Right now, Barnard’s ability to accommodate all of its students depends on careful calculations and predictions of student behavior. When those predictions don’t pan out, Barnard is forced to make adjustments. Some first-years might end up living in reconfigured lounges, some upper-class students might find out less than a month before move-in that the singles they picked during the spring housing lottery have turned into doubles, and some transfer students give up on their hopes of living with their new classmates on campus.

View of Sulzberger Tower, built in 1988

All of these scenarios have played out in the past five years, and none of them were unprecedented. Barnard has struggled to adequately house all of its students since its foundation and has tried to allay these housing problems by acquiring rooms and buildings along 116th Street and beyond. Without these spaces, many Barnard students wouldn’t be able to live on or near campus, and Barnard wouldn’t be able to grow as a geographically diverse college.

But in the way of continued expansion and increased dorm availability are the people who live and wish to continue living in their on-campus housing. Barnard has already displaced neighborhood residents in its quests to grow and house more students. Unless the college chooses to continue expanding into the neighborhood for the sake of student living spaces, it has few options other than relying on careful calculations and predictions to avoid housing shortages.

No room for error

On fall move-in day, 2014, several Barnard first-years found out that they would be spending the year in lounges converted into four-person dorm rooms.

Virginia Exley, now a senior, was one of those first-years. She was placed into an L-shaped, 335.8-square-foot lounge on the eighth floor of Sulzberger Hall. It was impossible for the space to be evenly shared between four people, so Exley took matters into her own hands. She convinced her roommates to move their three beds to one side of the room and moved her own bed to the other. Then, in an effort for more privacy, she put up a shower curtain around a corner, her corner, of the room.

View of the Barnard quad, where first-years traditionally reside

“It was nice as fuck—my own little space,” she says. “As for my other roommates, I think they would have more complaints.”

Despite her initial excitement over the living arrangements—she had thought it’d be a smaller space—Sofia Karliner, a Barnard senior and one of Exley’s roommates, does have complaints. “It was not super conducive to doing work or living comfortably,” Karliner says. “I would have preferred a double, probably, at the end of everything.”

In recent years, Barnard has aimed for an incoming class size of 600 students. However, the number of students admitted each year fluctuates. And when the incoming class is larger than the school predicts, lounges get converted into quads. In 2014, for instance, Barnard admitted 1,349 students—157 students more than the previous year—and ultimately welcomed an incoming class larger than the previous year’s class by 39 students.

As a result, doubles were in short supply.

Some factors in admissions are outside of Barnard’s control. Yield—the overall percentage of admitted students who ultimately choose to enroll at a college—is a tricky thing to estimate. “The mind of a 17-year-old can be unpredictable,” Jennifer Fondiller, dean of enrollment management at Barnard, explains.

“I think they just suck at math, honestly.”

—Virginia Exley, Barnard senior and former resident of converted quads

Clearly the minds of 17-year-olds in 2014 were not more fickle than in other years. While the admissions office may not have been able to precisely predict how many admitted students would choose to enroll that fall, Barnard did know that more students were admitted into the class of 2018 than had been in previous years, increasing the acceptance rate to 23.7 percent from 21.3 percent for the class of 2017. Additionally, the retention rate for returning students was 95 percent, steady from the previous two years.

Unless Barnard had reason to believe that the yield would decrease that year (which it did, by a marginal 2.8 percent), the resulting situation was surely something Barnard could have anticipated.

“I think they just suck at math, honestly,” Exley states.

Barnard experienced a yield of 51 percent in 2016, and saw a yield of only 43 percent in 2010. Ten years earlier, in 2000, Barnard’s yield was 38.4 percent. This variation makes predicting each year’s yield difficult. The school depends on a certain number of students either cancelling their housing registrations, cancelling their enrollments, or just never showing up, Dean of the College Avis Hinkson explains.

“All of the math of that year just didn’t go as predicted,” Hinkson says, “and that is a situation that no one wants to be in.”

The first half of this decade was busy with Barnard housing shortages. These lounge-quad conversions are actually a somewhat regular occurrence. Before 2014, the lounges had been converted into first-year dormitories as recently as 2012, and five more times since 1999. Not every housing shortage is a result of huge mathematical errors, but when a college’s housing supply is limited, slight miscalculations can fundamentally impact housing availability.

(Janie Haseman / Staff Designer)

Two years earlier, in 2012, about 50 students who had looked forward to spending their years in their super-deluxe, 169.6 square foot, two-window Plimpton corner singles found out in August that they had six days to find a roommate with whom to share that space with.

Barnard Residential Life and Housing told the affected Plimpton residents that over 80 students had been left without housing assignments that year due to a hodgepodge of a “higher yield rate, fewer housing cancellations, and a significantly higher number of housing applications.

“Last year’s housing crisis was really an anomaly,” Hinkson assured Spectator at the time, referring at the time to the 2012 shortage. To avert future shortages, Barnard administrators then put new rules in place: Students who were planning to study abroad had to confirm their decisions earlier, and students who intended to live off-campus were incentivized through fees to cancel their room reservations sooner. The admissions office joined in the effort, decreasing the acceptance rate to 20.5 percent (Barnard’s lowest acceptance rate up to that point) and shrunk the incoming class size from 605 in 2012 to 585 in 2013.

Plimpton Hall, which bore the brunt of the 2012 housing crisis

To their credit, these measures seem to have been somewhat effective: since 2014’s shortage—two years after the anomaly—Barnard has largely avoided major housing issues. For a number of other reasons, however, the threat of shortages persists.

At Barnard, the incoming classes of first-years have enjoyed standard dormitory living set-ups in the recent past. The desire for additional housing typically comes from transfer students and students who have taken leaves of absence. For these students without guaranteed housing, every year brings the possibility of a shortage.

Transferring to Barnard

When transfer students don’t receive housing assignments, their plight isn’t a signal of a “housing shortage,” as Hinkson defines the term. Unlike their counterparts at Columbia, transfer students at Barnard are never guaranteed housing in the first place.

Unlike Barnard, Columbia is actually able to guarantee housing to its transfer students, with the exception of engineering students in the SEAS Combined Plan Program Experience, who are only guaranteed housing for their first year in the program.

Hinkson attributes the difference between Columbia and Barnard’s policies on transfer students to Columbia’s size and flexibility. The flexibility is in the numbers: In 2016, Columbia had enough beds to house 92.1 percent of the students in Columbia College and SEAS, while Barnard could feasibly house 87.7 percent of its students.

(Janie Haseman / Staff Designer)

Barnard’s lack of flexibility means that transfer students are at the bottom of the housing hierarchy. “Transfer students are not guaranteed housing because we are prioritizing returning students for housing,” Hinkson says. “We are prioritizing our returning students who have moved from first year to second year, second year to third year, and so on.”

Transfer students, however, are frustrated by this hierarchy. “What I find annoying is that even next year we won’t be guaranteed, even though we’ll be returning students,” Collier Curran, a sophomore transfer says.

Barnard will admit transfer students knowing full well that there is not enough housing for them. “There’s no value to the college if we say, ‘We’re full, but we’re not going to let you in,’” Hinkson says. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”

But some transfer students report feeling misled about the probabilities of receiving housing. Olivia Roche, a sophomore transfer student, recalls that her acceptance letter told her the sooner she’d put down her deposit, the more likely it would be that she’d receive housing.

“I put my deposit down as soon as I heard,” Roche says. Ultimately, she did not get housing.

Due to tighter constraints on housing this year, incoming transfer students from as far away as Washington, D.C. were told that they would not receive housing, in part because of their ‘proximity’ to campus. Transfer students in 2012 also reported feeling surprised, and said that they were told that, despite there being no guarantee, they “shouldn’t sweat it” and had nothing to worry about as late as May, before finding out in August that they should start looking for off-campus accommodations.

Over the summer of 2012, students who had taken a leave of absence the previous spring semester found out in July that, despite having signed contracts as late as November that guaranteed housing upon readmission, they were, in fact, not getting guaranteed housing. And though the policy had actually been changed in February, students just weren’t alerted about it then. And in 2004, 12 transfer students were removed from Hewitt Hall to make room for first-years who would arrive the following semester.

Entrance to Hewitt Hall

This is nothing new. Transfers who entered Barnard in 1984 read in a brochure that “dormitories and residence halls are generally available to transfer students.” But, according to a Spectator article from that year, Barnard had only been able to house four or five of the 89 transfer students as of that October.

For students who already felt isolated at their previous colleges, the lack of integration is especially troubling. When Roche went to Boston College, she lived on a separate campus from the majority of the student body and had to take a bus to get to class. “I really hated that and felt really isolated from campus,” Roche said. She worried that her experience here would be similar.

As soon as Curran, who chose to live in a nearby apartment rather than commute from Long Island, found out that housing would be allotted based on distance, she was concerned, particularly about the social aspects. “Am I going to be isolated not living on campus? Am I going to miss out on friendship opportunities?”

When I asked Roche if she would have put down her deposit at Barnard if she knew that she had a low chance of getting on-campus housing, she hesitated. “I mean, the opportunities that Barnard has are very unique,” Roche says. “But it definitely would have been more of a decision.” Roche, whose permanent address is a two-hour commute away in New Jersey, now lives in an apartment on the other side of Morningside Park.

Hinkson says that she acknowledges “the difficulty that not being a residential student might present” for students who are trying to integrate themselves into the Barnard community.

Curran says that those fears have subsided somewhat since the school year began, as she’s attended club fairs and meetings. “Depending on how things go, I might not even apply for housing next year.”

Alisha Sahay, a sophomore transfer who is also living in an apartment near campus, says that her experience has been different from what she imagined the “Barnard experience” would be, although she sees a silver lining. “It definitely helped my roommates and I develop as people and as adults,” she says.“Now we’re doing all of these adult things, like paying rent and buying groceries.”

Housing Shortages: An Ancient History

Even if we were to use Hinkson’s definition of what constitutes a “shortage”, it still may be inaccurate to consider them “anomalies.” As we go further back in time, we find that housing shortages at Barnard were, in fact, fairly regular occurrences.

Increasing numbers of students had begun requesting on-campus dormitory rooms in the 1950s, resulting in decision that “priority for rooms should be given to applicants outside the metropolitan area who would have to spend 1 ½ hours or more each way in commuting.”

An official memo on off-campus housing dated to March 7, 1962, stated that “Barnard has never had residence facilities for more than one-third of the students.” It goes on to explain that up to 1946, Barnard had trouble filling the dorms, Brooks and Hewitt, that it owned at the time.

The memo further explains that pressure from non-residents for housing near campus increased due to the opening of Wollman Library in Lehman Hall in 1960; reduced evening train, bus, and subway schedules; and inadequate safety conditions not only in Morningside Heights, but near the students’ homes in Long Island and New Jersey. Barnard purchased the apartment building at 616 W 116th in the fall of 1962, thereby displacing approximately 170 non-college tenants.

For the first time in the college’s history, dorm availability became a factor in determining the number of students admitted in 1966 after “freshman overacceptance” caused a shortage the previous fall. Shortages persisted, however, and the discrepancy between the 250 students on Barnard’s housing waitlist compared with the zero students on Columbia’s was jarring.

Both schools have experienced increases not only in the size of their student bodies, but also in the number of students wishing to live on campus. Unlike Barnard, which felt it necessary to designate the west wing of Milbank as undergraduate housing as early as 1889, Columbia College began as a commuter college.

Even after the institution moved to Morningside Heights from its previous midtown campus on Madison Avenue, Columbia University President Seth Low initially only approved on-campus dormitories that were funded by outside donations. It follows that Columbia’s oldest dormitory, Hartley, was built following a donation from Marcellus Hartley Dodge, who graduated from Columbia College upon his graduation in 1903.

Housing options certainly increased in the decades following World War I, but many of the living options that Columbia students choose from today were not acquired until the 1970s or later. Columbia bought McBain from its former occupant, the Yorkshire Residence Club, in 1963. Like many literally off-campus but technically on-campus dorms, McBain originally served as graduate housing before it was converted to undergraduate housing in 1976. River (converted from graduate to undergraduate housing in 1977), East Campus (built in 1981), and Carlton Arms (purchased in 1982) followed as Columbia ramped up its construction and acquisition of housing in Morningside Heights.

It goes without saying that the student population naturally grows as the school attracts more students from a greater number of states, regions, and countries. However, some of it was deliberate.

In the 1970s, as more and more students wanted the on-or-near-campus living experience, Barnard College President Jacquelyn Mattfeld decided to increase the sizes of incoming classes in order to increase revenue for faculty salaries. Referring to this as the Mattfeld bulge, Barnard history professor Robert McCaughey wrote in Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University that this increase resulted in a disproportionate increase in commuting students.

According to McCaughey, enrollment increased from under 2,000 students in the first year of Mattfeld’s presidency in 1976 to over 2,400 in her last four years later. Interestingly enough, the Barnard Bulletin described 1977’s incoming class, the largest to date, as “not planned, but rather an accident due to an exceptionally high yield.”

Tensions ran high in the Barnard administration as Barnard Director of Admissions Christine Royer called housing availability “the bane of [her] existence.” “I’m not putting the blame on anyone,” she told Spectator in February 1979, “Yet we just don’t have the room to expand.”

In January 1980, Barnard could only house up to 51 percent of its students as of 1979, and the administration was concerned that accepted students would choose to attend other colleges where they could find housing.

Fortunately, Mattfeld’s short tenure saw the addition of units for 38 students from the apartment building on 601 W 110th to the Barnard’s housing stock. Soon after, in 1980, she was replaced by Ellen Futter, who graduated from Barnard in 1971.

Barnard acquired the building at 49 Claremont Avenue (which became Elliott Hall) from the nearby Interchurch Center, and in 1982 Futter announced that Barnard would officially guarantee housing to all first-years who requested it.

This marked the first time that Barnard prioritized first-year housing, hoping that “the relationship between the College and the freshwoman can be viewed as like that between a mother and her newborn child.” Additionally, fitting with its transition toward becoming more of a residential, community-focused college, Barnard intended for “the housing of all freshwomen on campus” to “obliterate distinctions between ‘residents’ and ‘commuters.’”

Impact on the Community

As an institution founded in New York City, Barnard’s housing crisis is primarily due to a lack of space. But Barnard doesn’t live in a vacuum—there is not enough space for anyone, and hasn’t been for centuries.  

Morningside Heights’ development into a residential area began in 1902 when the subway first arrived at 110th Street, bringing with it many of the people who would live in apartments that today serve as dormitories and brownstones for Greek life and Special Interest Communities. McCaughey wrote that a prosperous middle-class filled the apartments construction through the 1920s. Around the same time, Barnard’s 600, 616, 620, and Elliott were all built, as were Columbia’s Watt and Ruggles.

(Tanvi Hisaria for Spectator)

After the stock market crashed, landlords subdivided apartments into single-room occupancies, or SROs. During World War II, single wartime workers and prostitutes lived in SROs, but when welfare clients moved in after the war ended, landlords walked away from their buildings, which became occupied by squatters.

In 1947, Morningside Heights, Inc. organized to save the neighborhood by buying up properties. The big institutions of Morningside Heights—Columbia University, Barnard College, Riverside Church, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Union Theological Seminary, St. John’s, St. Luke’s, and the Interchurch Center—pooled resources to incorporate the Remedco Corporation in 1949.

Plimpton was built on the site of the former Bryn Mawr Hotel in 1968. The New York Times called Bryn Mawr a “center of narcotics addiction, prostitution and other crime.” According to an official Barnard news release from February 1966, Barnard purchased the Bryn Mawr Hotel from the Remedco Corporation, which had purchased the building in 1964 “in an effort to improve neighborhood conditions.” In 1970, Morningside Heights, Inc. executive director Edward C. Solomon referred to this era of SRO evictions as “the renaissance of the Heights.”

616 W. 116th St. was home to the Altora House before Barnard acquired it in 1962, replacing approximately 170 tenants. Among those 170 were elderly people, Columbia College students, exchange students, and Juilliard faculty members.

Many of the tenants in 620 W. 116th St. acquired by Barnard in 1966, held statutory leases that forbid the owners from ever evicting them. This meant that by the fall of 1966, only half of the building was available for Barnard students.

The last of Barnard’s 116th Street acquisitions, 600 W. 116th St., was acquired in 1971. The building’s tenants accused the college of unnecessary expansion, and filed suit against Jacard Realty (the company Barnard bought the building from) for renovating the apartments for student occupation, but the motion was turned down by the state supreme court.

I would just be thrilled if Barnard chose to sell its part of the building on the private market. I am absolutely serious. Sell them as private condominiums so that this building can be one unified residential condominium with one board that represents all of its interests.

—Belina Anderson, former president of Cathedral Gardens condo board and private resident of Cathedral Gardens

Over two decades later, Barnard extended its reach even further when it took ownership of the new part-condominium, part-dormitory development on the corner of West 110th Street and Manhattan Avenue.

Cathedral Gardens was developed under the Cornerstone Program, a multi-family housing initiative run by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to facilitate mixed income housing on city-owned land. Barnard partnered with Artimus Construction to build the multi-use building, cited by the New York Times as one of the first of its kind, with students and faculty occupying 70 percent of the building and unaffiliated residents occupying the remaining 30 percent.

“We went into a partnership agreement looking at the need to provide some housing for faculty as well as some housing for students, as well as having some non-affiliates live there and contribute to the funding and so forth of that property,” Hinkson says of Barnard’s decision to add the building to its housing offerings.

When it opened in 2006, some students were put off by the distance between the dormitory and campus and others were concerned by a lack of sufficient security. Others, however, liked the sense of independence that the 17-minute walk provided.

When I lived in Cathedral Gardens last year, I did not always appreciate that walk.

But the time it takes to walk to campus is more trivial in light of the community’s concerns. Not everybody in Cathedral Gardens feels that they have benefited from Barnard’s acquisition in the deep southeast corner of Morningside Heights. In fact, some of the condominium owners in the building resent Barnard’s ownership.

I would just be thrilled if Barnard chose to sell its part of the building on the private market. I am absolutely serious,” Belina Anderson, a private resident of Cathedral Gardens and former president of the condo board, says. “Sell them as private condominiums so that this building can be one unified residential condominium with one board that represents all of its interests.”

Decisions about Cathedral Gardens are made by a joint board composed of three Barnard representatives and two condominium owners, structured as a partnership between a Barnard-affiliated board and a non-Barnard board. Anderson, who was formerly the president of the non-Barnard board, says that this imbalance is a detriment to the condominium owners because of divergent interests between the two groups.

View down 116th street, site of several Barnard housing acquisitions

When I spoke with Anderson, she stated and restated that she didn’t think Barnard was by any means evil and that the relationship between the school and the full-time residents has improved over time. The problem, as she explains it, is that the minority owners (the mixed income residents) and the majority owner (Barnard College) have “irreconcilable interests.”

One of the biggest concerns, she says, is that delays in repairs to the condominiums and to the building’s facade, as well as a lack of a schedule for those repairs, have made banks more reluctant to let owners use their condominiums as collateral for loans. As a student, that’s not something I really considered when I was living at Cathedral Gardens.

Finding room for everyone

According to a spokesperson for Columbia Housing, Columbia works with a statistician to forecast demand for housing each year by comparing data from previous years. The analysis is reviewed throughout the year, taking into consideration leaves of absence, room cancellation requests, the number of students registering for room selection, and the number of students planning on studying abroad. Housing also uses the expected number of new students provided by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to determine “the total bed demand.”

In the case that the number of students with guaranteed housing exceeds the total beds available, Columbia works with University partners to find spaces for students. Hinkson says that Barnard does this as well, by reaching out to nearby institutions like the International House on Riverside Drive and the Manhattan School of Music.

“I think that all of us are quick to pick up the phone and say, ‘Can I have an extra five beds? The extra 10 beds?’” Hinkson says. “The issue is, does somebody have them available when you need them?”

As far as future plans for housing expansion, Hinkson says that “if there was something available [Barnard] would certainly be engaged in that conversation.” This past August, for instance, Hinkson says that she visited a property between 90th Street and 99th Street that she had heard was renting out rooms but decided against building a partnership because the rooms were too small to be considered adequate doubles.

When discussing Barnard’s history of acquiring buildings in the neighborhood, Hinkson draws a parallel between the college’s current needs and its needs for more space in the 1980s when it began using rooms in the apartment building on 601 W 110th St.

“I’d imagine at the time that that began, it was a circumstance like right now,” Hinkson says. “The question is, ‘We need more housing—what can we do to get more housing?’”

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