A case for affinity housing: Why the College should reconsider the housing system

Alia Richardson

In 1969, members of the Williams Afro-American Society occupied Hopkins Hall, refusing to leave until College president John Edward Sawyer agreed to address their 15 demands. These demands included the creation of a Black studies program, hiring additional Black faculty, recruiting more Black students and creating a Black cultural center in which Black students could live. This last demand, however, was never granted. While the Davis Center (DC) provides valuable programming and support for students of a variety of identities, students of marginalized and underrepresented identities would still benefit from having an affinity housing living option.

Affinity housing would grant students who share an aspect of their identity the opportunity to live together in an intentional community with shared values and goals, allowing these students to feel supported and have their identities affirmed by those who live around them. This type of housing serves to enrich the campus life by providing educational, cultural and social programming for not just the residents of the house, but also the wider campus community, thereby promoting a stronger sense of solidarity among students of marginalized identities. It would also allow the DC to have closer ties to students’ residential lives, allowing them to better support students of underrepresented identities.

Several of our peer institutions have implemented a residential life system that includes affinity housing. Students at both Amherst and Wesleyan have the option to live in a Black culture house, Latinx culture house or an Asian-American culture house.

The common argument against affinity housing at the College is the idea that one can learn from living around people of all different races, interests and cultural backgrounds. This is true, but is already an experience that every student has during their first year here through the entry system. Forcing students to live around people of other backgrounds for the full duration of their time at the College, based on the idea that they are to learn from one another, inherently tokenizes international students, students of color and students of underrepresented identities. Nevertheless, even with the existence of the neighborhood system, many students rarely interact with their neighbors outside of their pick group.

Some may argue that affinity housing would create a divide between students of different interests and backgrounds. This divide, however, already exists through the houses on Hoxsey Street and other off-campus apartments, which are primarily home to athletes. To secure off-campus housing, students need to sign a lease as early as their first year. Athletes are often the only ones who know who they will be living with senior year, because they frequently plan to live with their teammates. The College turns a blind eye to these unofficial “themed houses” without creating communal housing options around the historically marginalized and underrepresented identities for which these options would be most valuable. Further, these houses and apartments often require a hefty down payment, which only increases the divide between those who can afford such options and those who cannot.

By giving athletes their own unofficial spaces, without providing an analogous option for other identities, the College seems to expect us students to adhere to a “mythical norm” (a term coined by Audre Lorde that describes the characteristics idealized by society that hold power and bring about oppression) of straightness, whiteness and able-bodiedness. When we deviate from this norm, we are meant to educate others around us about our experiences as “ambassadors” of our identities. As we approach the 50-year anniversary of the Hopkins Hall Occupation, it is valuable to reevaluate how the College can best support the students of various identities that it continues to recruit, and how the College as a whole can work to create safe and supportive living environments that parallel those at our peer institutions. We must rethink our current housing system, and consider creating an affinity housing option.

Alia Richardson ’19 is from New York, N.Y. She is a biology major and Africana studies concentrator. She is the co-chair of the Black Student Union at the College.