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The housing lottery: where the odds are never in your favor

By Carolyn Rogers

Section: Opinions

April 15, 2016

Dealing with the Department of Community Living (DCL) housing lottery is the bane of my existence at Brandeis. It is how I imagine many people feel about dealing with the IRS. Many people have already discussed the problems with the amount and quality of housing, but my beef is with the system of choosing itself. I voted against both of the changes DCL proposed several months ago, but I still do not think the current system is a good one.

Students have made a running joke out of comparing the Brandeis housing lottery to the Hunger Games. At first, this seems easy to laugh off because the Hunger Games represent such an extreme situation. The problem is that fundamentally, the joke is funny because it’s true: The housing lottery creates an atmosphere where people are incentivized to compete against each other for housing. It creates an every-person-for-themselves mentality that makes people’s behavior exclusive, cutthroat and downright not Brandeisian.

Part of the problem is that the process takes so long. The numbers come out a full month before upperclassmen start choosing their rooms, but so much intervening time is unnecessary. It does not take that much time to tour the different styles of housing, and most of the group formation happens during the last week anyway. The whole procedure should take no more than two weeks: Numbers should come out on a Friday, people should have one week to form groups and decide where to live, take the next week to choose housing and then we can all get on with our lives. The extra time in the current system does not allow people to evaluate their options more thoroughly; it just gives them time to tell their friends “maybe” instead of a solid “yes” or “no” which creates a tangled web of miscommunication and jockeying for spots in groups that may or may not be full. The process is so miserable partly because of the weeks spent competing with friends to get into a group. Streamlining the process would force people to commit to their groups more quickly.

The process should also happen much earlier in the semester and require more commitment. Many people would be equally happy with on- or off-campus housing, but they enter the lottery anyway for the chance to get a good number. It is then less likely that someone more committed to living on campus will get a good number and more likely that someone with a moderate number will pull out of the lottery. A deposit, of say $200, would motivate people who do not place a high value on on-campus housing to forgo applying for housing at all. Requiring a deposit would increase the likelihood that good numbers, and therefore on-campus housing, would go to the people who value it the most. And getting housing settled in February instead of April would give anyone choosing to move off-campus more time to find a place to live in Waltham.

Finally, there should be more fairness regarding which upperclassmen get high and low numbers. Randomly assigning numbers to rising sophomores is as fair as it will get, but there should be a system resembling that of course registration appointments in place for rising juniors and seniors. Everybody who got one of the latter 150 numbers the previous year should be guaranteed something within the first 400 numbers the next year. This would make it so that nobody would get a truly terrible number two years in a row, but it would still give everyone else a shot at a low number.

While comparing the lottery system to a dystopian arena where teenagers fight to the death feels accurate, that is an indicator that the system needs to change. These suggestions will not solve every problem associated with the housing lottery, but they will certainly simplify the process and make it less stressful. Finding housing at a university should not be an ordeal and developing a less painful system does not seem like too much to ask for. Perhaps injecting some common sense into it will make next year’s choosing process less like the Hunger Games and more like the inclusive, positive community that Brandeis strives to be.

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