I napped in the basement of Van Pelt Library. I ate in the Biotech Commons. I cried in Harrison College House’s 23rd floor lounge. And once this almost nomadic daily routine concluded, I started panicking about where I inevitably needed to go next—my old Rodin apartment.
After a conflict with my two roommates in early November, I felt increasingly unsafe in my supposed home. From my roommates banging on walls to verbally harassing me, I could only exist in my apartment when they were asleep. I called friends to feel safe whenever I had to enter the common space and slept on their couches on particularly tough nights. Every day, I left my apartment at 8 a.m. and returned at 2 a.m. the following morning. Mentally burnt out and physically exhausted, I decided to contact Penn Residential Services. It was November 22—three days past the room change timeframe—but I needed to figure out how to finally move out of my apartment. Despite an incessant and increasingly frantic string of calls and emails, I wasn’t allowed to move out until the next room change timeframe—February 11, continuing to endure the constant sense of insecurity in the nearly–four–month wait.
Housing at Penn is managed by two organizations: Penn Residential Services and College Houses & Academic Services (CHAS). Penn Residential Services oversees the room change process and room assignments, while CHAS manages roommate issues, the Resident Advisors (RA) team, and residential programming. In an email from Hikaru Kozuma, the Executive Director of CHAS, he writes that Residential Services and CHAS work together to provide temporary spaces for students who need them within the College Houses.
Penn Residential Services claims to offer a “home away from home.” In spite of the estimated $11,754 yearly cost of on–campus housing, Penn recently instituted a two–year on–campus housing requirement to foster campus connectedness. CHAS is meant to “develop smaller, intimate communities that students call home.”
But despite these promises, I didn’t have an on–campus home for almost four months.
With ten percent of students in four–year–colleges reporting that they’ve couch surfed due to an unstable living situation and two percent reporting that they’ve lived in a hotel or motel with no permanent home, it seems that my situation was anything but unique on college campuses. And at Penn, it’s all too common an experience within the College House system.
Kris* (E ‘25), who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from his current roommate, was seated in an empty practice room when we first spoke. As he told his story, he pulled out a note on his phone to collect his thoughts.
Prior to starting his first year at Penn, he requested a double and was moved into Riepe College House in the Quad with his first roommate. His first roommate was incredibly clean and they had a cordial relationship—but his roommate detested the Quad to the point where he would shower at Hill College House, causing him to not be in the dorm often. According to Kris, “Everything was nice and ordinary” until his first roommate decided to move out in November.
Things went from “nice and ordinary” to deeply uncomfortable very quickly.
After his first roommate moved out, Kris received an email from Residential Services that stated they’d offered the vacancy in his room to another student. Per Residential Services’ website, the student had 48 hours to accept or decline the offer in writing. But after 48 hours passed, the potential roommate hadn’t responded to the email yet, and Kris was under the impression that he’d be living alone for the time being. Yet, after nearly two weeks, he received another email stating that his potential roommate had accepted the room change offer, outside of the aforementioned 48–hour window.
Through both my own and Kris’ experiences, it appears that Residential Services’ generosity is unevenly applied to different students. Kris received an email on November 4 stating that his new roommate failed to accept the room change offer, but he soon received another email on November 15 stating that his new roommate would be moving in four days later. While Kris’ new roommate could move into his new room even after he initially declined the offer, my requests to move out were consistently denied because my first email to Residential Services was sent three days after the room change period closed.
Kris describes his new roommate as the “messiest person [he’s] ever met.” He now wanted to file a room change request, but based on his negative experiences with his second roommate, Kris wanted to live in a single room. He was concerned about incompatible living styles and potentially intruding into someone else’s living space in the same way that his second roommate did to him—but the Residential Services website told him that there were no more singles available. An email from Residential Services confirmed that on campus, there is "an occupancy rate of 96 to 98 percent." Kris speaks of his initial reaction: “I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll suck it up,’" he says. "I waited. It got worse this semester.”
Despite incidents such as his roommate leaving out a half–filled carton of milk for multiple weeks and disruptively taking calls at 4:45 a.m., Kris believes that the worst part of his shared dorm is the stench. “I have four windows open right now. The room smells terrible … I’ve [been told by friends] that it’s ‘unlivable.’ They were nearly gagging. They [said] they couldn’t live there. [They told me] it smells like the wet socks of a wet dog.”
As his living situation worsened, Kris decided to speak to his RA, who sent him a roommate agreement in the hope of establishing boundaries and living expectations. “Yeah, that doesn’t do shit,” he laughs. After the roommate agreement failed to alleviate these issues, he spoke to his RA again, who then talked to Riepe’s house director and their supervisor, both of whom work under CHAS. The supervisor told him that they were nearly at maximum capacity, and explained that there was no possible place to move to within the Quad. The Riepe house director declined to comment, stating, "Any matters that involve students are private and cannot be discussed." Kris says that they told him to essentially “suck it up, and that Penn Residential couldn’t do anything for [him].”
Despite CHAS claiming that the Quad was near capacity when he inquired about moving elsewhere, Kris has seen at least ten empty rooms in the Quad. While he’s been told that some of the empty rooms are for emergency purposes—in what Kris speculated to be situations such as rat infestations and health concerns—the state of his room is so unhygienic to the point where he’d “rather live with a rat. It’s probably more sanitary.”
To cope with the stench, Kris tries to avoid his dorm except to sleep, staying out of his room from the time he wakes up to around midnight every day. From hanging out in lounges to doing work in nearby study areas, Kris goes from place to place so that he doesn’t have to be in his room. “I don’t want to study in my room. I don’t want to stay in there,” he says.
When asked to comment about Kris’ experience, Kozuma wrote in an email, “If issues arise when a new roommate moves into a space, [CHAS] will work with the roommates to resolve the matter. The RA team and House Staff can act as resources in these situations.” But despite Kris signing the roommate agreement and having numerous conversations with his RA, he still feels like it’s not enough.
Reflecting on his experience, Kris feels frustrated that his requests to move elsewhere haven’t been accommodated by CHAS and Residential Services. While he never directly reached out to Residential Services due to the expectation that talking to his RA would have led to greater intervention from administration, he believes that both CHAS and Residential Services should’ve moved him into different housing. “I think it’s been past the point where they should accommodate me in some way. Something needs to happen … I feel like Residential Services did fail me.”
Just like Kris, Michael* (C ‘25) feels that his experience with CHAS and Residential Services has been unaccommodating and bureaucratic. Originally living with a roommate in Fisher–Hassenfeld College House in the Quad, Michael was unable to go to sleep due to his roommate’s snoring. Despite both him and his roommate trying numerous tactics such as reaching out to a physician to solve the roommate’s snoring and Michael buying different kinds of earplugs, the snoring went unresolved. Michael’s sleep was disrupted in the process, causing him to sleep for only one to six hours every night. With his stress exacerbated by a heavy course load, he found himself reaching out to Residential Services to find an “instant solution.” But Residential Services told him that if he wanted to move, he would have to wait for the room change period to begin—which wouldn't happen for another two weeks.
Michael submitted his room change application “the second that it was opened” in mid–September.
The long wait between submitting his application and receiving a room change offer from Residential Services was frustrating. In late September, two weeks after his application was submitted, Michael sent an email inquiring about the status of his request. He stated that there was an empty room across from his current room, and that he would be willing to leave his residential program in order to move out of his dorm.
Residential Services responded that their office was still processing room changes, and that these rooms were likely empty for “maintenance or other reasons.”
In spite of these open rooms that remained uninhabited for vague and unexplained reasons, Michael had to sleep in the Fisher computer lounge and other lounges near his room. Sometimes, he even illicitly slept in the aforementioned unfilled rooms in the Quad, “carrying [his] blanket, pillow, and bed sheets” to each new location. Getting a good night's sleep meant being transient.
A week after this response in early October, Michael followed up with Residential Services, saying that “my head feels as if it’s about to explode from the consistent lackluster sleep,” and requested that his preferences on the room change form be expanded so that he could live “anywhere quiet.” Residential Services denied his request to update his preferences. After another five days, Michael sent a second follow–up email out of desperation. “Please, tell me what I should do. What have I done wrong to end up here? I don't understand. I really don't. Tell me what to do.”
As I read the emails Michael sent to Residential Services and CHAS, I thought of the frantic emails I sent over the course of nearly four months. I began to recall Residential Services’ robotic response of “I empathize with your current rooming situation” that ignored my anxieties and the unhelpful responses that did nothing to remove me from my dangerous apartment.
Despite the complicated emotions that reading Michael’s emails invoked, what alarmed me most of all was that I still knew exactly how he felt when he sent that email, even two months after I moved out of my old apartment—tired, panicked, and isolated.
I thought I moved past my formerly unsafe housing situation. But the feelings that Michael’s emails brought forth made me realize the permanent impact that unstable housing and Penn’s apathetic bureaucracy have on students. While the feelings of fear and isolation that came with my displacement may fade, these feelings would never disappear. They would remain forever.
During this same time period, Michael was moved between three temporary rooms over the course of two weeks—two in Stouffer College House and one in Ware College House.
Despite denying his request to expand his room change preferences five days earlier, Residential Services’ Occupancy Coordinator Miranda Stewart responded to this second follow–up by advising him to expand his room change preferences, which she said could be updated in the following week. She also told him that his house director, his RA, Student Health Service (SHS), and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) could act as resources to help him cope with his living situation.
“What can I do? I just want to sleep at night,” Michael responded in an email. “I have been sleeping at computer lounges and other locations these past nights in hopes of getting even a lick of sleep.”
He received no response.
Michael didn’t receive his room change offer until mid–October, nearly a month after his original request. The new room was in Kings Court English College House (KCECH), but unluckily, his new roommate snored “even louder than the first [roommate].” To cope with the noise, he turned to sleeping in KCECH’s computer lounge.
“I think the Fisher computer lounge is a lot more comfortable than KCECH’s computer lounge,” he says. “I got desperate, to say the least.”
After sending another email to Residential Services, he was moved permanently to a single in Stouffer. However, after being moved to this single in Stouffer, the rooms within his section were flooded due to a pipe issue. He had to move one more time to another room in Stouffer.
Overall, Michael has lived in seven different official rooms at Penn, not counting his various other makeshift bedroom spaces such as the Fisher computer lounge, the empty rooms in Fisher, and the KCECH computer lounge.
According to clinical psychologist and professor at Penn’s Department of Psychiatry Dr. Philip Gehrman, an ideal sleeping situation is when your bedroom acts as a “comfortable place” for you to go. Bedrooms should be safe, comfortable, and predictable—and knowing where you’re going to sleep every night is essential for mental health.
Gehrman says that humans need spaces where they can retreat to for relaxation and security, as uncertainty surrounding sleeping spaces will increase anxiety, impact mood, and negatively affect mental health.
“You could certainly end up with this downward spiral where housing displacement is causing stress and lack of sleep … I’d say anxiety in particular would be one of the most likely consequences of [housing displacement], but then that anxiety could further worsen sleep, stress levels, and academic performance,” Gehrman explains.
When asked about how his sleep deprivation impacted his academics and social life, Michael says, “I wanted to do so much more my first semester. But being sleep deprived and moving everything around made it really difficult.” Specifically, he recalls that his sleep deprivation caused him to misread numbers on weekly math quizzes and made his five–class course load “even more difficult than it needed to be.”
Dr. Dennis Culhane, the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, further emphasizes the continuing repercussions of Michael’s seven moves.
“One of the main impacts of housing instability is that it’s a threat to one’s ontological security. [Ontological security is] one’s sense of self in the context of a secure social and physical environment, which is home, for most of us,” he says. Culhane explains that having a place to relax, experience relationships, and set goals is fundamental to growth and healthy development—and all of this is threatened by an unstable housing situation.
Similar to Michael, Tianhao “Christopher” Luo (C ‘25) has been moved into five different rooms this semester. But unlike Michael, throughout his moving experience, Christopher found Residential Services to be helpful.
During a trip to New York City over spring break, he received an email that told him that a pipe broke and flooded his dorm in Stouffer, damaging his possessions on the floor. While he filed reimbursement requests to compensate for his water–damaged possessions, Christopher still hasn’t heard back about the status of his request as of April 2022.
Residential Services soon moved him into another dorm in Stouffer, which had water damage from the same burst pipe. After this discovery, he was moved into a temporary double room in Ware College House in the Quad.
In an email, Christopher requested that he be permanently relocated to the temporary room he was living in, saying that he was “tired of constantly moving in and out.” Residential Services denied this request, as the temporary room he was living in “serves a necessary purpose in residential building operations.” They then moved him into a permanent room that was also in Ware.
Compared to his rooms in Stouffer and his temporary room in Ware, his new room had significant street noise and the floor was in bad condition. Christopher asked to be moved back into Stouffer, but was told that there were no more single rooms in that College House. However, Michelle Majeski, the building administrator for Gregory College House, Harnwell College House, and Stouffer, found Christopher another alternative: a single room in Gregory, which he happily accepted. When asked about Christopher’s situation, Residential Services confirmed that Majeski assisted Christopher in relocation. At the time we spoke, he was preparing to move his belongings one last time.
Despite the inconvenience and stress of moving, Christopher believes his interactions with Residential Services were generally beneficial. When he was moving out of his old room in Stouffer, they provided him with boxes and tape to package his belongings and sent staff to help him carry his possessions.
Christopher explains that he didn’t believe that Residential Services was at fault for his five room assignments. “It’s more about the facilities—they can’t really do anything about that. In general, [Majeski]’s replies were on time and quite helpful. I wouldn’t blame [Residential Services] so much.”
But like Michael, the general impact of moving has taken its toll on Christopher. “The main thing I have to do is [packing and unpacking]. I have no clue how I’m going to be able to do that. It might take some time, and I also have to review for my midterms.”
Both Michael’s and Christopher’s numerous moves have caused housing–related stress that’s only been magnified by other typical pressures such as academics, relationships, extracurriculars, and family. “The number of moves should be as limited as possible,” says Culhane. “Because each move can be very disruptive.”
While Residential Services and CHAS can act as resources to accommodate students in need of different living arrangements, not all students are equally helped by these institutions. After my conversations with Kris, Michael, and Christopher, it became clear that on–campus housing displacement is often suffered silently. Once you don’t have a home on campus, the magnitude of displacement is often brushed aside by family issues, maintaining friendships, and the day–to–day pressures that come with being a student. But once these stressors compound, the anxiety is almost debilitating.
While outsiders might dismiss roommate conflicts and pipe bursts as silly college happenings that’ll soon be ignored or laughed off, the feeling of being unable to live in the one place that you can call your own on campus is almost impossible to forget.
Petty roommate squabbles can still make students feel vulnerable—and Penn, in promising a “home away from home,” should remove students from environments where they feel unsafe. Many first years look to the University to foster community and provide on–campus homes. But for Kris, Michael, and Christopher, this promise went unfulfilled.
Penn students have the privilege of hope when it comes to their future with the University. Despite past unstable housing, each year comes with new room assignments, new living situations, and new beginnings.
When I ask Michael about his sophomore housing plans, he remains optimistic about the coming year. “I’m going to be moving in with some friends … and I hope this doesn’t ever happen again.”
My own new beginning happens after four months of fear, when I finally walk into my new room in Harnwell. Contrary to the tense silence of my old apartment, this new silence is peaceful. As I enter my new room—which looks exactly like my old room in Rodin—I finally lie down and exhale.