On the off-campus housing process: Challenging the status quo to bridge the athlete/non-athlete divide

The off-campus housing system is flawed, and the athletes reap the benefits. But this piece isn’t bashing athletes. As an athlete, I don’t think the solution would have been for me to live on-campus, while someone else signed for my apartment a week later and I got to bask in my otiose martyrdom from a senior co-op. That doesn’t change anything. The underlying system itself needs to change.

I think most people at the College would agree that there is a divide between athletes and non-athletes. I think it’s rarely, if ever, appropriate to speak on behalf of those with a different perspective from myself so, as someone who reaped the benefits of being an athlete on the College campus, I won’t do so here. But I can also sympathize as to why this current social structure would be frustrating, or make integrating into the social scene as a non-athlete at the College difficult, or at the very least serve to create a divide between factions of students that shouldn’t have such strong barriers between them. It just makes it easier to put people into the category of “other.”

I don’t know what that’s like from the non-athlete perspective, but I do know that creating divisions and misconceptions about that “other” group is never good for the fabric of a community. My group of friends and I have been called racists, rapists and homophobes multiple times by people we don’t know. This doesn’t make us victims, and I think the benefits we get from our willing participation in an unfair system fostered much of this divide. But a school, or a community, or a world where everybody is susceptible to feeling like they are from an unwanted group is a breeding ground for fear and anger, a place where empathy goes to die.

And I don’t mean to craft a whiny, woe-is-the-privileged side to this story, but I think the athletes are worse for the wear too. There is something that is lost when you spend your time at the College, or your life in general, floating through a sea of homogeneity. We can make a school of 2000 feel even smaller; we can make the whole world feel like the six inches between our ears. Creating such a tiny reality sacrifices the greatest parts of being alive. How could it not – there is so much more to consider than just our own little perspective.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m preaching some dogmatic message on how we should all live, because I’m not. Systemic changes are needed; the solution is not some individual-level epiphany from everyone on campus. In fact, I think that preaching a message of empathy to all and treating it like some miraculous solution is one of the more privileged things you could do. Telling those who are disadvantaged that their duty is to empathize with and educate those who are ignorant, besides being an unrealistic solution, places an undue and unfair burden on the oppressed to be the ones constantly educating the privileged.

I don’t have all the solutions to this division at the College, and I certainly don’t have the answers to the larger, underlying questions that come with it. But I think the first step, in order to turn abstract thought into real progress, is fairly clear. The school needs to reshape the way it deals with off-campus housing and put an end to athletes having such a massive advantage to securing the houses that are capable of hosting parties. I don’t think eliminating off-campus housing is the answer – this pushes inevitable college-style drinking into an underground scene. That is dangerous. Instead, the “off-campus housing lottery” needs to be treated like a real lottery. Rising seniors who wish to live off-campus should be in the same lottery as those who wish to live in a co-op. When the first group is called, it can choose Goff’s or 71 just like it might choose Lambert, or some other co-op. Off-campus houses and co-ops are in the same selection pool.

Once the lottery has been completed, students who selected off-campus houses are granted a release to live only at the house in which they selected in the lottery. Then, and only then, does the College grant permission for them to sign a lease with that specific landlord.

Because there will be such uncertainty about whether students will be granted a release to live in a certain location, the signing of leases during freshman and sophomore years will stop. We might not be able to regulate the landlords, but we won’t need any forced compliance from them, because the market demand for their housing will be nonexistent before the lottery. The off-campus housing process should be aleatory, not passed down from generation to generation within teams. Other problems will still remain. But I believe that this is an important first step to creating a more equitable and cohesive community at Williams.

Gregory P. Zaffino ’17 is an economics major from Darien, Conn. He lives on Spring Street.