Students protest lack of available housing during presidential address
Univ. President Ron Liebowitz presented a reflection on Brandeis' history and future goals in honor of the University's 75th anniversary in the face of a protest.
“Brandeis was seen as an institution on the leaning edge of higher education — bold and beyond convention,” said University President Ron Liebowitz during the annual Presidential Address. He spoke before an audience of students, faculty, and administration in Sherman Function Hall on the morning of May 1. In the midst of the speech, a group of nearly 40 students protested housing shortages.
As Liebowitz addressed the challenges the University has faced while adjusting to normalcy after the pandemic, he acknowledged concerns that the Brandeis community has raised in recent weeks: “It goes without saying that we live in a difficult time, and it is easy to be consumed by all the social ills that plague us … Those stresses are in addition to our localized and personal difficulties that members of the community face and which we need to address — issues related to accessibility in all its forms, to mental health, to housing, to the cost of living, and more.” He explained that as the administration determines their priorities, it is important to recognize that addressing issues will require time and funding, but he has a “resounding sense of optimism for the future” because of his faith in the “character and soul of this institution.”
Last week, students held a silent protest in support of 29 students who reportedly received unsuitable housing despite their disability accommodations. Outrage intensified after the upperclassman housing selection, when many students were left without on-campus options. Although the number of combined rising junior and senior students is close to 1700, there were only 665 beds accounted for as of April 24, Samkyu Yaffe ’24, one of the point people for the protest, said in an April 27 interview with the Justice. That leaves nearly 1100 students to find off-campus housing for the 2023-2024 academic year.
According to the U.S. News and World Report, Brandeis has typically been able to house 76 percent of students on campus while 24 percent live off campus. Due to COVID-19, the yield rate has been unprecedentedly high. Since first-years and sophomores have guaranteed housing per University policy, they receive priority in the selection process.
On their website, “DCL Housing Hell,” student advocates outlined many demands due to the number of students who are struggling to find options last-minute. In the short-term, they wish for the University to create accessible, emergency housing to accommodate students either on campus or off campus. They also asked for guaranteed adequate accommodations for students with disabilities, full transparency of the Department of Community Living’s housing system, and student representative involvement during planning stages going forward. As a long-term resolution, they ask the administration to direct funds to building more housing for the growing student population.
“This is far from an unsolvable problem. It might cost money. It might be inconvenient. [Administration] can do it, and they’re obligated to — if not contractually, then ethically,” said Yaffe. “This was never an issue that was going to be solved by DCL. They do not have enough beds, and that’s not their fault. That’s admin’s fault because admin should have seen this coming approximately eight months ago and bought the housing and made the changes they needed to make, but they didn’t. They have failed.”
Minutes prior to the Presidential Address, Vice President of Student Affairs Andrea Dine sent out an email acquiescing to some of the students’ demands, including a new student advisory committee “for diverse student representation in discussions related to the housing process.” The email also assured students that the administration is actively searching for both on-campus and local housing and “will share information as it becomes available.”
Immediately following the email, the protest organizers posted on their Instagram to call off the protest and convert it into a celebratory rally. “The few demands that were not met are not things that the University is capable of granting this quickly, and we understand this,” the post reads.
“This is not us disbanding the group, just [us] choosing not to protest today in exchange for what has been promised thus far. But we still need them to deliver,” explained Yaffe in a May 1 statement to the Justice. “It’s not over. But we’re willing to try working this out across a table as opposed to with megaphones for now.”
However, many students remained unsatisfied with the response and continued with the original plan to protest. “I still felt like I wanted to protest because yes, that email is the next step, but there's no actionable things outlined yet in that email, in terms of what would be the emergency housing,” said Kaela Owitz ’25, one of the protestors, in a May 1 interview with the Justice.
At 11:10 AM, a group of protestors entered Sherman Function Hall silently and sat down as Liebowitz talked about the current political climate in America. “The polarization of American society has led to challenges related to trust, the increased intolerance of different opinions, controversies surrounding free and restricted speech, and the significant loss of confidence in higher education on the part of the general population,” said Liebowitz while the students held up signs one by one. Their posters contained slogans such as:
“Disability Justice Now”
“Housing is a Human Right”
Liebowitz did not acknowledge the signs and continued with the planned speech. “I want to be very clear: We are not in a financial crisis. We can set a course if we so choose to,” he said, addressing rumors about Brandeis’ ability to financially support new facilities and initiatives. He emphasized that the current administration is dedicated to fixing problems now rather than leaving issues to their successors as well as reclaiming Brandeis’ competitive standing as a top institution.
Ten minutes after the first group of protesters arrived, a second group walked in and stood by the doors holding up signs. The sitting students then stood up and joined the others a mere five feet away from the podium. Five students held up a large banner which read: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The students remained unacknowledged by Liebowitz.
At the conclusion of his speech, there was a split second before the audience began applauding where a protester proclaimed, “And what about housing?”
Liebowitz finally addressed the protestors, stating: “We’re committed to solutions.” The protestors directed questions to Liebowitz about how much housing in Waltham would cost.
“I don’t really know exactly how much it would cost; it’s a lot, probably,” Liebowitz replied. “If I were guessing, I’d be off, but I know it’s become more expensive than living on campus, which creates problems, and we are committed to finding solutions to this.”
The students provided him with an estimate of at least $900 a month for apartments that are within walking distance to Brandeis — a cost that many students said they could not afford unless they work part-time jobs along with their full course load. According to real estate sites such as Zillow and Apartments.com, this estimate is credible — the average 5-bedroom apartment in the 02453 area code charges $5,000 in rent per month. Assuming each student pays the rent for one bedroom, they would be paying around $1,000 a month. This rent is slightly more expensive than the costs of living on campus but with added inconveniences such as commute and safety.
Owitz helped illuminate some of these challenges. “This has been incredibly stressful for my friends and I [sic],” she shared. After being promised an apartment by a real estate agent, they lost out on the housing to competition from a more affluent Brandeis parent looking to secure housing for their student. “I'm so overwhelmed as a student because I have finals I have to prepare for and study for right now. But every hour that I'm not spending coordinating with housing agents, I feel like I'm losing out to the competition around me.”
Lack of access to cars is another major concern for Owitz, who feels that walking back home at night is unsafe for her and her roommates. “It's just so difficult, especially when it's going to be raining and snowing.”
Owitz also emphasized the intersectional implications of housing affordability: “It's incredibly discriminatory and scary for lower income students and people of demographics that are just going to have fewer resources during this process.”
Brandeis is not the only school in the area to face housing struggles in recent years. According to the Boston Globe, Suffolk University bought Ames Hotel for $63.5 million in September 2019 to convert into additional student housing. WHDH reported that Emerson College housed more than 200 students in the W Boston on Stuart Street during the fall semester to de-densify the campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This month, Northeastern University became a permanent tenant at the Sheraton Boston Hotel and converted 428 hotel rooms into dorms, according to The Huntington News, the independent newspaper at Northeastern.
Liebowitz included Andrea Dine in the conversation, who reassured students that they will not be required to pay any additional charges if they have not accepted their on-campus housing offers. Liebowitz also promised that there will not be any additional “forced” or lofted triples to accommodate unhoused students.
One protestor asked, “How do you expect students to focus on finals knowing they will be homeless next year?” To that point, Liebowitz encouraged them to attend the upcoming listening sessions to voice complaints in a forum dedicated entirely to housing concerns. The listening sessions were initially announced by Dine and Liebowitz in an April 27 and April 28 email, respectively.
In addition to Dine, Vice Provost Kim Godsoe and Assistant Vice President of Student Financial Services Sherri Avery will be in attendance during office hours on Tuesday, May 2 from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm in room 106 in the Gryzmish Center. The three already hosted one listening session on April 28. Liebowitz will be hosting his session on Wednesday, May 3 from 1:30 to 2:30 pm in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. In his email, Liebowitz said that he is “always advocating for the best possible version of Brandeis.”
Another concern raised by student protestors was how Brandeis will ensure that their solution to housing will not affect the larger Waltham community through gentrification and increased real estate costs. Liebowitz agreed to keep the Waltham community in mind.
In response to demands to stop admitting more students than the school can house, Liebowitz said that reducing the student body is not a potential solution. Although he recognized that housing is short, he said that there will be measures to accommodate future classes even if there are no immediate solutions for the current upperclassmen. He emphasized that no one could anticipate the size and yield of the current first-year class after COVID-19 and shared that admissions will gradually reduce class sizes back to normal. According to Liebowitz, the admissions department cannot implement an immediate reduction because tuition accounts for the majority of Brandeis’ revenue. As such, they need to admit enough students to sustain financial stability for the current student body.
Students also asked Liebowitz why Brandeis has the funds to build a new engineering building to add to the Shapiro Science Complex but not build new housing. Liebowitz responded that Brandeis will rethink the order of their priorities.
“Activism is good for the University,” said Liebowitz, but he stressed that the listening sessions will be a more appropriate forum for students to voice concerns.
After turning over questions to Dine for a second time, Liebowitz left the hall through the back door with his mic still on. The protesters laughed in disbelief as he left the room and then started a “We want housing” chant.
“The fact that [Liebowitz] walked out on us without ending the conversation is really amazing to me,” said Owitz. “He did say repeatedly, ‘We should continue this in tomorrow's listening session,’ but the fact that he just left without announcing that felt disrespectful. I felt like we were maybe heard up until that point at the end.”
The Justice requested a comment from Dine and Liebowitz following the protest.
“My team is committed to listening to our students and implementing improvements to the housing selection process,” Dine wrote in an email to the Justice.
“As I said to the students following my address, Brandeis encourages respectful discourse and welcomes student input,” wrote Liebowitz in a statement shared with the Justice by Julie Jette, assistant vice president of communications. “We aim to improve the student experience and we understand students have frustrations related to housing.” He re-emphasized that he wishes to hear students at the listening session on Wednesday.
Earlier in his Presidential Address, Liebowitz had said, “Critical thinking, including a willingness to be self-critical, is virtually absent in today’s polarized society where everyone else is to blame for whatever is wrong.” With the uncertainty surrounding housing, students at the protest seem to be waiting for that willingness to reform and sense of accountability from the administration.