Housing asks where residents will be living after "appreciably lower" turnout in room selection

Following reportedly low initial rates of freshman returning to on-campus housing, resident assistants (RAs) on campus have been asked to aid university housing services in an information collection initiative that some RAs are calling “an invasion of privacy.”

Every year, housing services run on-campus room selection, which opens in February and closes in early March. This year, “room selection participation was appreciably lower than it has been in past years, especially amongst the first-year class,” according to information distributed to housefellows by the office of Josh Hoey, Assignments Coordinator at housing services, and later sent to RAs in an email.

Due to this low turnout, a survey was distributed by housing services to those that did not fill out room selection forms. Though this survey got over 70 percent participation, housing services engaged in attempts to get more responses.

RAs were told to get 100 percent participation by engaging in an in-person survey that would get more information about why non-returnees did not go through the room selection process. One RA, who is choosing to remain anonymous due to concern about their job status, told The Tartan that in some cases, this means reaching out to “over 30” people, in-person, in less than a week.

The three questions RAs were told to ask residents were “why didn’t you participate in room selection,” “what are your housing plans for next year,” and “if you’re going off-campus, where are going (a general response is ok),” as sent in an email from housefellows to RAs. The information obtained from RA’s outreach in person was to go into a Google spreadsheet to report back to Carnegie Mellon housing.

The third question, regarding the location of future off-campus residencies, was concerning to some residents and RAs. Another RA, who is also choosing to remain anonymous for the same reason, said that this was an “uncomfortable question,” and stated that one of their residents refused to answer it.

They continued that “the main thing about the survey that bothered me was that the RAs were told to push [the questions] on their residents, who had already received [them] multiple times through email, so it felt like we were being asked to harass them about a somewhat personal decision, and their personal information.”

Both RAs that communicated with The Tartan felt their role as an RA did not include information collection for the university. Correspondence from a housefellow to RAs stated that the initiative fell under an RA’s “role of advisor,” according to an email sent to RAs, whereas John Hannon, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs for Community Life, told The Tartan in an interview that it fell under the role of “administrator.”

The second of the two RAs that communicated with The Tartan stated that the administrator role as only been described in the past regarding things like “maintenance, or facilitation of room selection,” not “helping housing with internal information collection.”

John Hannon told The Tartan that the questions RAs were told to ask were not a violation of privacy because “it was up to each student to decide what information they chose to provide, and some declined to provide any, which was absolutely fine. Much of the data that was collected from students was very generic in nature (such as ‘apartment in Shadyside’ or ‘house in South Oakland’).”

Hannon stated that the effort to get RAs to interview residents, which he calls the “RA outreach initiative,” was to “better understand the market forces currently at play related to off-campus student housing in the area,” in addition to seeing if people had simply missed room selection and didn’t have housing yet.

In terms of university expansion, Hannon stated that moving forward, the university will seek to not buy existing properties, like what was seen in the 2018 purchase of the Fifth Neville apartments, but rather “primarily focus on buildings that are fully designed and constructed by the university, toward ensuring that they offer the optimal student experience based on student input.”

The Tartan reported on the purchase of Fifth Neville last year, finding that then-residents would be unable to renew their leases in the building, many of them Carnegie Mellon upperclassmen.

“I see a lot of issues with how the university is approaching housing right now: buying up off-campus options [like Fifth Neville] that are more affordable than on-campus housing,” as opposed to prioritizing “renovating the facilities that already exist,” the first RA that communicated with The Tartan said.

The same RA continued, “the reality is that people can live off-campus for cheaper and with a better quality of life.”

Despite all this, Hannon stated that he does not “think the entire story has been told yet regarding the number of upper-class students returning to on-campus housing.” However, with the “appreciably lower” rates of initial room selection participation compared to past years, Carnegie Mellon is sure to make an effort to avoid depreciation of on-campus housing relative to other options available to students.