Forced to Leave Home

MIT Grad Housing’s Disorganized Response to COVID-19
APR 2020
Neha
B.
Biology

A message to MIT grad housing: if your tenant’s best housing option is to haphazardly make a 13-hour interstate drive in the middle of a literal plague after being given only two days’ notice, you are doing something horribly wrong.

I live in one of the graduate dorms — Ashdown House — and I absolutely love it. It is my home. However, I recently had to move out, although MIT Housing has shrewdly made it so that I can’t technically claim that I was forced out of housing.

On the evening of Friday, March 20th, we received an urgent email about a new housing policy related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It said that all of us had to fill out a form by noon on the 22nd declaring our intention to either stay or leave, and if we did not fill out this form, we would lose our housing. In the most prominent part of the message, they stated that we should absolutely leave by March 22nd if at all possible, and they would only provide financial assistance to move out before then. If we decided to leave after the 22nd, we were required to provide a date by which we would do so. If we decided to stay, we had to indicate a reason from a list of options that they deemed acceptable.

None of their ‘acceptable’ reasons for staying applied to me. Perhaps I could have just indicated that I did not have any reasonable alternative housing accommodations—I doubt MIT Housing knew I could move to my parents’ home in Michigan. But deciding to stay felt risky. It was completely unclear if we would need official approval from Housing to be able to stay. Would their move-out policy eventually be as strict as that for the undergrads? And even if I did stay, what if the grad dorms were later shut down anyways? There was no time for me to even ask —the email came on a Friday evening and they only gave us until Sunday to figure it out.

“Okay,” I thought, “Deciding to stay in Ashdown leaves me with no housing security. I have to leave.” But when? If I indicated that I was leaving on a date after the 22nd, it was unclear if the provided move-out date would be enforced. What would happen to my housing if interstate travel was impossible at that time and I couldn’t get out? I had to leave immediately.

Next problem: having a “reasonable alternative housing option” did not mean I had a safe way of getting there. Dealing with airports and planes would put both me and my family at risk of exposure. But that didn’t seem to matter to Housing. All they wanted was for as many students to move out as possible to make the dorms safer—but what about the fact that we would be putting ourselves (not to mention our families) in even more danger by deciding to travel elsewhere? In a time when MIT and literally every other entity discouraged all nonessential international and domestic travel, how could Housing threaten our housing security and try to push us to move?

I booked a rental car for the next day, figuring that it was safer than flying. I threw as much of my stuff as I possibly could into bags that night. In the meantime, I had to deal with the next ambiguity: would I have to pack up my whole apartment? Housing, to their credit, was allowing us to keep our stuff in our rooms without having to pay rent after leaving, but they gave confusing instructions about whether we had to keep our belongings packed up in boxes, or if we could leave the room as is. The only clarification I was able to get in this small span of time was “don’t let your stuff keep you from leaving—the most important thing is for you to get out.” Easy to say for someone who isn’t being kicked out of their home. 

It would be a long drive and I needed to sleep, so I opted not to spend time packing up my remaining belongings. I turned in my apartment key in the morning and started my 13-hour drive. I did my best to minimize potential for exposure. Before leaving, I sprayed down the inside of the rental car with 70% alcohol as much as I could. For the entire trip, I wore an oversized nightgown as a lab coat, nitrile gloves (double gloving at the gas station, of course), and even a shower cap to protect my hair from touching anything in the car. Who would’ve thought that the sterile technique I employ for my biology experiments would come in handy in this insane situation?


My pandemic driving outfit. I'm sure people thought I was crazy—definitely
got some weird looks at the gas station— but that's a small price to pay for
reducing risk of exposure.

After finally reaching Michigan, I saw another message from Housing walking back on their last notice and “clarifying” that the decision to leave was up to us students—they weren’t going to force us out. This made it look like those of us who moved out did so out of our own free will. I also learned from Housing’s confusing flowchart that I had to terminate my lease even though I would be coming back to the same housing assignment. This posed yet another point of confusion: the available termination form had not been updated to reflect the COVID-19 situation. According to the form I filled out, I have terminated my lease completely and won’t be returning. When I contacted Housing, they reassured me that this was the correct form and that they just hadn’t had time to update it, but this system is downright irresponsible. “Leave now and we’ll figure out the paperwork later” is not a valid system for anything, particularly not when it leaves grad student housing up in the air during a global crisis.

To be clear, I was by no means in the worst-case scenario. For example, the 21st was the last day to catch a flight to India, so many of my Indian friends had less than 24 hours to decide whether they wanted to take a gamble on staying in grad housing or fly home and risk exposing themselves and their families to the virus. I’m sure other students struggled with similar concerns.

Overall, my general question is this: why did so many of us have to leave in the first place? Don’t get me wrong; I’m beyond glad that the reduced number of residents makes the building much safer for the students and staff that had to remain, and I am certain that the individuals that serve as liaisons between us and MIT Housing—such as our Heads of House—are thinking along the same lines. Reduced density in a dorm is good for the building and for public health in general. But we have apartment-style housing; in theory, our living situation is not riskier than an off-campus apartment, and off-campus apartments cannot legally kick out their tenants like this.

Housing claims their urgent policy was in response to new information, such as the virus surviving on surfaces, but we had already known that for a while. I speculate that they are concerned about a liability issue if several students in grad housing are infected with the coronavirus, but I can’t be sure. Regardless, they clearly did not truly care about students’ safety, as they pushed many of us to travel during this dangerous time—at best, they put some of us in danger to protect others. And they did so not by officially evicting us, but by threatening our housing security to a point where we felt like we had no other viable options. At the very least, they could have clarified—in a timely manner—that they did not intend to force us out, and they should have kept their information and forms updated. Those two things alone would have reduced the utter panic that ensued.

No matter what technicality Housing uses to talk about this, please know that many of us were pushed out of our home in ways that endangered our health and the health of our families. That is unacceptable. I hope that, when this situation improves, Housing will at least help us with moving back. I want to come home.