Monday, September 21, 2009

I Fought Housing... and I Won

I am by no means spoiled. But when things don't go my way, sometimes it is necessary and proper to throw yourself on the ground, scream, flail, and thrash around for a bit. This is pretty much how I ensured that the basements of my townhouse complex remain unlocked...

I live in an on-campus townhouse complex called Colony (which falls somewhere between "the slums" and "low-income housing" on my scale of RIT Housing). Despite the distance from campus, disrepair, and the smelly, ant-and-bee-infested swamp I have for a backyard, I really enjoy living there. One of the major draws is the basement - the only RIT housing option with a basement. We have two rooms, a "family room" and a "utility room."

According to the RIT Housing website, the Family Room is 12 x 21, and the Utility Room is 13 x 21. There is a very thin, poorly constructed wall (with holes in it) between the two rooms, and a door connecting them.

I was back home in Maryland this summer, but my roommate Charles Moreland stayed in our townhouse. One day, he emailed me and was furious that "Housing was locking our basement."

...What? I didn't get this email. I had him forward me the email, which stated that "this necessary work is being done to address past occurrences with fire code violations and maintenance issues. These incidents include: inappropriate storage of combustible materials near the furnace and hot water tank, and the sump pump being clogged with debris (resulting in flooded basements)."

I assumed my email was waiting in a queue somewhere, and was bound to arrive sometime that night. Over 24 hours passed, and I still hadn't received an email. That's when I realized that Housing was trying to pull a fast one on any residents not actively living there over the summer.

And that's when I got angry. And to quote the Hulk, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

I thought for a moment, then came up with a plan.

Phase I) Write an email. I wrote an email that started off by thanking them for locking our basement. I told them that I was glad that they were going to lock off 273 square feet of our townhouse, but I was confused as to why they didn't mention the $704 I would save in rent that year! I continued this implication that they were lowering our rent for a while, and told them I planned on using the money to buy food and textbooks - things I wasn't able to afford both of last year.

I acknowledged I was being sarcastic, and then I pointed out that this yet one more problem in a long line of "miscommunication issues" that Housing was facing. I was part of a Housing Committee that Housing disbanded (because these were the kind of issues we were bringing up. You know, real ones.). I pointed out that they weren't updating their Housing Guidelines handbook, they weren't informing students of changes to policies (or weren't until it was too late), and that they inconsistently enforced other policies. It was also unacceptable that they kept this a secret from most of the people it would effect (school-year residents). I offered my contact information for further discussion, and I promised they would hear more complaints.

And then I sent it 15 people. Everyone from the Director of Housing to the President and Vice-President of Student Government to the Director of Student Affairs. One person could ignore it... but fifteen couldn't.

I got an email from the President of Student Government telling me he was "looking into the situation," and then I got a call from one of the higher-ups in Housing. We spoke on the phone for some time, and he insisted that this was the way it was, and there was nothing I could do.

So then I got serious.

Phase II - Spark a Social Wildfire. I knew they could ignore me and my opinions, so I needed to get the word out. Which, I believe, is why Facebook was invented. I wrote a Facebook note that briefly informed people what was happening, why it was happening, and what I was doing to stop it. Then I picked one of the people from my email list, and I told everyone to email that person one person and complain. I was trying to ensure that the complaints would be concentrated. I posted an alarmist status update ("Do you live in Colony? Housing is trying to lock your basement! Read my note to learn how to stop it!"), and then asked people to repost my status update and my note.

I also contacted several social activists on campus and we were beginning to plan a Walk on the Housing office.

It spread quickly, and while I have no idea how many emails my target received, it must have been enough. All Colony residents (ALL residents, summer and school-year) received an email a few days later that "after phone conversations with several students residing in the Colony Manor townhomes as well as reviewing feedback posted on Facebook and through email, I’ve decided on a compromise."

Phase III- Resolution. They came in and marked off an area around the furnace where we couldn't store anything, and they put a grate over the sump pump. This was a perfectly legitimate, appropriate, and valid response to the problem, whereas locking the entire room was punative and disproportionate to the problem.

So while some people get an email like that, say "Damn, that sucks" and shrug it off, other people get up and complain. When that doesn't work, but you know that your needs and goals and just and right, then it's time to throw yourself on the floor, scream, flail, and thrash wildly until you get your way.

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