Panic as NY int’l dorm orders students out amid COVID-19 lockdown

International House-NYC told some students they must urgently leave after the graduate housing was hit with coronavirus.

New York
The Empire State Building and the skyline of New York are seen while a man walks around a local park in Weehawken, New Jersey, as the coronavirus outbreak continues in New York [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

New York City – Anuja Jaiswal was in the middle of helping a friend move out of her student dormitory when she got the news: she had eight days to vacate the dormitory and find a place to move to while New York City scrambles to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

“My heart sank to the bottom of my chest,” she says of the moment when she confirmed the news through a WhatsApp chat with some other residents of International House, known popularly as I-House, in New York.

The private, non-profit housing facility hosts hundreds of international students attending different universities and colleges across New York City. For many like Jaiswal, a master’s student, the news came as a shock.

Even as universities sent their students home to help fight the threat of the virus, students at I-House had been assured by the administration that the dormitory would remain open and they could rely on them, according to more than five individuals who spoke with Al Jazeera.

But late last week, that message changed after an I-House staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Residents living in the south wing of the building, which is designed in a dormitory style and requires sharing of common spaces such as bathrooms, and kitchens, were told they must leave by March 27. I-House’s north tower, which is apartment-style housing, will remain open.

On Saturday, a resident reportedly died from coronavirus “related complications”. By Monday, a third case had been reported.

Students say I-House is using a loophole in the contract, which states I-House residents are “members” of the community, and not “tenants”, to absolve itself of legal responsibilities, especially given that there is currently a 90-day halt on all evictions in New York state.

Nowhere to go

I-House said in a statement it was waving financial penalties and refunding security deposits and unused room and dining fees. It also said it was working with universities and other organisations affiliated with the residents to help identify safe housing options.

I-House added that it would ensure “that while residents must vacate the South Building, no resident will be left without a viable housing alternative”.

Jaiswal, an Indian from Bahrain, was particularly horrified because the announcement came a day after Canada closed its borders. Otherwise, she could have gone to live with her sister in Toronto. Because she still holds an Indian passport, and owing to her visa concerns, she would not be able to return to Bahrain where her parents live.

Jaiswal is not the only being evicted. Given that more than half of the dormitory’s students are from abroad, most of the students are suddenly without a place to go to in the US.

“It’s definitely putting those of us who are already financially unstable in more instability because we now need to self-quarantine ourselves in hotels or Airbnbs before going into our parents,” Grace Wacuka Njoroge, a master’s student from Nairobi, Kenya, told Al Jazeera. “Not to mention, the risks involved in getting through an Airbnb and trying to find food.”

Jaiswal said it also made it very challenging and uncomfortable for the residents to look for a place now, given that they now run the risk of being carriers.

“A big factor in this decision making and may be different to a normal eviction is the infection,” she said. “The real risk isn’t whether I get it but whether or not I spread it to someone else and I just don’t like being put in that position. You’re forcing me to make morally uncomfortable decisions.”

The saga continued into Sunday evening, when another notice was sent out to students strongly urging them to vacate the premises by Tuesday. But some students, like Njoroge, said they did not know if they could leave right away. 

An elected member of a committee that represents residents at I-House told Al Jazeera that since the story broke about Saturday’s death, some people have been turned down by apartments or other residences initially willing to host them. The member spoke on condition of anonymity fearing backlash from the administration. Al Jazeera was not able to confirm that students had been turned away.

Al Jazeera spoke to two students who were afraid of sharing their information because of the same fears. They shared similar accounts of the administration’s handling of the matter, as well as the panic that ensued.

New York
Workers stand near a fence during the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Manhattan borough of New York City [Carlo Allegri/Reuters] 

In a letter seen by Al Jazeera, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer condemned the I-House’s decision and demanded that the institution “reconsider [the] eviction of countless students”.

“We find this plan unacceptable and dangerous to your residents and the public in general,” the letter said. “We strongly believe that International House, as a member of our community and this city, has an obligation to your students-residents, who may have been exposed to the virus in your facility, to allow them to remain in their units to provide the necessary time for them to observe for symptoms, self-quarantine, and if necessary heal in their homes.”

I-House, in a statement to Al Jazeera, said its staff “realise and regret the difficulty and disruption these measures have caused to the community and wish a less disruptive option was equally effective in preventing the virus’s spread”.

It added: “The health and safety of residents is our paramount concern.”

But experts worry that forcing hundreds of people into the larger society and requiring them to move in with other people can bear dangerous health concerns in this pandemic, where social isolation has repeatedly been named a key factor in helping slow it.

“From a public health perspective, it makes much more sense to keep the students where they are: isolate sick individuals and quarantine exposed individuals while encouraging social distancing measures for all,” Dr Michael Sinha, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, told Al Jazeera.

He suggested measures that would require limiting access to common spaces such as gyms, dining halls, and recreation rooms.

“Eviction exposes them to far greater risk of exposure than allowing them to stay in the International House: homeless shelters, food pantries, crowded public spaces: all high-risk for exposure to COVID-19,” he said.

But Dr Sinha also said there is a challenge with “strictly-enforced lockdowns” similar to the ones that occurred on cruise ships in Japan and Oakland city in California.

“These measures lumped sick/exposed individuals with unexposed individuals. In that setting, everyone eventually gets exposed,” he said.

Lack of preventive measures

The students said they understood that the institution had to take certain measures, but given the unique demographic, the administration should have been more transparent, clearer in their communication and taken preventive measures.

Anindita Chakroborty, a student from India, said given the large number of students residing at I-House who are parts of different institutions and campuses across the city, it was only a matter of time before someone contracted it.

“Being a little prepared for this would’ve been a lot more helpful,” Chakroborty said.

She had gone to Philadelphia for two weeks when her classes at Columbia University moved online. When she received the news about the I-House closing, she feared that all her possessions – including important documents – were still in the building. She, too, had relied on what she says were repeated reassurances from the administration that they would be open.

She feared coming back to I-House to clear her room, a process which would require her to commute from Philadelphia and potentially exposing herself either during the journey or at I-House itself. After a day of phone calls and repeated emails with automated responses, Chakroborty said they let her keep her things in the dorm for the time being.

“A lot of residents feel like they could’ve made provisions for testing or quarantine,” Njoroge said. She added that learning about someone testing positive, as well as a notice to leave in the same email was overwhelming.

Despite the panic, students utilised their alumni network to find and share listings and resources for everyone to use within days. A petition by Njoroge demanding the resignation of the president has already received more than 170 signatures.

For now, Njoroge is headed to a friend’s house in Massachusetts – something that will require her to take a bus, while she nurses an injured foot. Jaiswal is moving in with a friend in Brooklyn, who welcomed her to stay. As they vacate the premises, the students are not carrying with them the sense of security and respect they once felt about the mission of the I-House movement.

Source: Al Jazeera