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What is Duke Students for Housing Reform?

A look at how the group came to be and the conversation they are trying to start on campus

Last January, a dozen students met in the Brodhead Center to hash out their criticisms of the current West Campus housing model. They would be the first of more than 350 and counting current students and alumni to sign their names in support of change.

Fast-forward six months, and Duke Students for Housing Reform (DS4HR) is now a full-fledged student organization dedicated to advocating for the decoupling of selectivity with housing on West Campus. Sophomore Spencer Kaplan, a Class of 2021 representative to DS4HR’s 2018-2019 executive board, said the organization's goal is to build community. 

“Every student just wants to have a feeling of community. What we’re trying to do is not disrupt the existing communities, but to make sure every student has ample community where they live,” he said.

'Opening up that conversation has been a big victory for us'

As they look ahead to next year, Kaplan and other leading members of DS4HR reflected on the positive progress they’ve already made along the path to achieving their goals.

Senior Kayla Thompson—a Class of 2019 representative on next year’s executive board—pinpointed the creation of the Next Generation Living and Learning Experience Board of Trustees task force as a milestone for the organization.

“Through conversations between President Price and some of our founders around January and through other factors of course, President Price must have found it important enough to create a [separate task force on the issue of housing reform], which is awesome,” Thompson said.

Kaplan explained that he believes DS4HR’s advantage as a group is that it doesn't necessarily have one specific model or course of action in mind, but that the group is united around a common idea. He added that the creation of the task force will hopefully allow DS4HR to serve as a source of student input into future housing policies.

“I don’t think we’re going to liaise directly into it, but our group is definitely interested in seeing the developments of that, and we’re going to try and contribute however we can,” he said.

Nevertheless, Thompson explained the importance of recognizing that students who applied to serve on the task force and who were ultimately chosen do not necessarily believe in the decoupling of selectivity with housing and completely overhauling the housing system. Rather, she explained that the task force is an entity charged with learning more about students’ opinions—that is, there is not necessarily a relationship between the task force and DS4HR.

Thompson, who will serve on the task force, elaborated on how she intends to use her role.

“We are not going [into task force meetings] with an agenda, and we are not trying to fill all of the committee spots with members of DS4HR,” she began. “But it does give me a chance to speak with many, many more students about their thoughts on housing reform on campus.” 

Junior Leah Abrams, one of the founders of DS4HR, echoed this sentiment, explaining that DS4HR wants “anyone and everyone” to come forward and share whatever their opinions are on housing. She added that the organization has encouraged anyone to apply, regardless of whether they subscribe to DS4HR’s mission.

Abrams further explained that regardless of who is on the committee, she feels very confident that when those representatives take a more formal look at how students are either satisfied or dissatisfied with the current housing model, they will find that the housing system is not equitable. Then, those people will be in prime position to share their thoughts with administrators and the Board of Trustees. 

“I just have not heard a great argument that everybody on campus is happy with the way things stand, and so I’m ready to hear what they find,” she said.

Beyond DS4HR’s success in stimulating conversations about housing reform and the external creation of a task force to further investigate the issue, the organization has also made tangible HRL policy progress, said Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life.

The East Campus house linking program—which allows residents of East Campus houses to opt into the same West Campus housing block the following fall—was piloted this past year with Brown, Blackwell and Giles, Gonzalez noted. Plans are underway to implement this option for all East Campus houses next year. 

But the house linking program is not the only initiative HRL has experimented with since the inception of the current West Campus housing model to strengthen the transition from East to upperclassman houses, Gonzalez said. He explained that other pilot programs have included ‘open house’ nights where first year students could visit the independent houses and get a better feel for them, independent house fairs where first year students could come to meet house leaders and ask questions and information brochures sent to first year students. 

More recently, socials have been held in conjunction with room sign-up for first year students to visit their house and meet current house members as well as receive invitations to their future houses’ spring cook-outs, he added. He also mentioned that just this past year, each quad sponsored a programming week where a series of events was held and first year students could attend to get a feel for them. Gonzalez explained that these events turned out to be opportunities for current members to meet each other more frequently, adding that HRL is currently looking into whether such an effort should be done during the early fall instead and focus on current house members.

Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs, explained that he hopes the recent change to require all incoming freshmen to receive random roommates will expand [the freshmen class’s] exposure to different students and facilitate the development of new friendships that will lead to independent houses with more tightly knit groups of friends.

'We’ve definitely had an uphill battle'

But growing DS4HR has not been without its challenges, and by admission of its members, there is still much work to be done moving forward.

Thompson explained that the two problems DS4HR has most commonly run into are the limiting infrastructure at Duke and the tendency of group ideologies to constrain individual opinions. Thompson explained that there are often individual members within selective living groups who support housing reform, but who often feel like they can’t speak up due to their involvement in the organization. 

These organizations as a whole have been hesitant to offer support, which effectively removes a potential area of support from the Duke student population. Moreover, the residential college model is not so easily implemented at Duke, as its Gothic buildings have not been built like those designed to allow such a model to succeed.

“We’ve definitely had an uphill battle,” Thompson said.

Moneta elaborated on the difficulty of adhering Duke’s buildings to fit the residential college model, explaining that the Gothic residences have very tiny rooms, very narrow hallways and very limited common space. Duke must make the best use of the inventory it has, he added.

As both a supporter of housing reform and a member of a selective living group, Abrams elaborated on the sensitivity of disrupting existing community dynamics on campus.

“People who are part of selective groups—I’m actually a part of both—rightfully really value their living situations,” she began. “It feels really good to have that community, so it can be persuasive to argue that we can just make independent living better without having to take away our existing living situations,” she said.

Moving forward, Thompson said that the group will also prioritize obtaining more signatures on its petition by finding ways to get potential members involved more successfully.

“We had a really strong founders team, but a limited one, and all of us were incredibly busy. That was definitely one of our biggest weaknesses but something we can continue working toward next semester,” she said.

Independent students are already at a disadvantage when it comes to mobilizing their opinions because the same group-chats that might exist assist in rallying support from students in fraternities and SLGs don’t exist for their unaffiliated counterparts, Kaplan explained. He added that simply keeping the conversation going around campus is the most important priority for DS4HR heading into next year.

'If you say the word ‘housing’ on campus now, people think of housing reform'

Despite the challenges ahead, DS4HR has persisted, and the organization plans on shortly releasing a policy brief which summarizes all of the projects the group has been working on this past semester, Kaplan explained.

According to Thompson, the policy brief will include several items such as continuing efforts to obtain more petition signatures; reaching out to more selective living groups, including SLGs, fraternities and sororities; attending these groups’ chapter meetings to gauge where they stand [on the issue of housing reform]; and most notably, reaching out to Duke alums.

“There are a lot of alums who are really excited about what we’re doing and who want to share their stories with us, so figuring out ways to connect with them and have their stories be heard is certainly a priority,” Thompson said.

Gonzalez praised DS4HR for their efforts to improve Duke students’ residential experiences.

“I really appreciate their genuine interest in the housing experience that Duke students have, and I think it’s exciting to have others who care about [the student housing experience] becoming the best that it can possibly be.”

Moneta explained that while Duke administration and DS4HR may have different paths to a common outcome, he does not think the two bodies are divergent in their intentions. He added that he believes there is actually “pretty consistent alignment” with [DS4HR]’s long-term objectives and Duke’s long-term objectives. 

“I think they’ve been extraordinarily responsible and reasonable. I think they’ve been clear and offered compelling arguments, and I think they’ve found a way to express it appropriately that captures our attention.”

Thompson credited the sheer number of articles written on the subject this semester and its prevalence as an issue in the recent DSG presidential campaign with affording the issue of housing reform a level of visibility on campus like it has never had before.

“If you say the word ‘housing’ on campus now, people think of housing reform. This was a topic that rose to the forefront of students’ minds, and to me, that is a success. Because before this semester, it wasn’t.”


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