When Claire Sheridan, CC ’15, told her parents that she planned to live with Steven Bennett, CC ’15, they “flipped out,” she said. “I had to hold the phone away from my ear,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan said that her parents were concerned about her living with a male friend, citing lifestyle differences and asking her how she would change clothes in her room. Sheridan, though, said that she’s had no problems living with Bennett and that her parents’ anxieties were unfounded.
“I don’t think it [housing] should be based on terms of sexual orientation or gender,” Bennett said. “I think it’s more in terms of whether or not two people are OK with living with each other.”
Bennett and Sheridan are two of the 60 students currently participating in Columbia’s open housing program, which was expanded to all upperclassmen dorms this year following a limited pilot program in 2011-12. And four years after students first proposed gender-neutral housing—which allows any two upperclassmen to live together in a double—students and administrators say the program has been implemented without a hitch.
“The pilot showed that gender-neutral housing functioned like regular housing,” said Avi Edelman, CC ’11, who in 2009 co-wrote the proposal for gender-neutral housing that was eventually implemented. “There were no special considerations, and I think seeing that in action made the administration enthusiastic about opening it up to every upperclassmen dorm.”
“What we saw was exactly what we expected to see: If you find a compatible roommate, the gender element doesn’t really matter,” Edelman added.
Dean of Community Development and Multicultural Affairs Terry Martinez said that administrators decided to expand open housing to all upperclassmen dorms after analyzing feedback from students who participated in the pilot program.
“It is very important to have gender-neutral housing as an option for students at Columbia,” Martinez said in an email. “Such a policy provides upper-class students who may feel uncomfortable under the requirement to select a same-sex roommate the option to pursue a living option that feels more safe or comfortable.”
Bennett and Sheridan decided to take advantage of the open housing option after their initial housing plans fell through.
“I feel like we’re really respectful of each other and our needs,” Bennett said. “Claire is the right type of girl that I’d be able to live with.”
Julian Bass-Krueger, CC ’15, is rooming with Reina Imagawa, CC ’15, in Nussbaum. He said that they signed up to be roommates “just like everyone.”
“None of my friends are living with people of the opposite sex, but I don’t see the big deal about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t categorize Reina as a girl. She is a girl, definitely, but that’s not her defining trait. She’s on her own wavelength.”
Students say there are a variety of reasons to choose open housing. Stella Girkins, CC ’15, decided to live with Justin Martin, CC ’15, because she felt that he would be the best roommate for her based on their compatibility as friends.
“A lot of the time, people assume that if you’re living with someone [of the opposite gender], one of the parties is gay or having a gender identity crisis, but that’s just not the way it is,” Girkins said. “We’re both straight, but I just tend to get along with guys better, and he tends to get along with girls better.”
“I would never room with a boyfriend,” she added, “but Justin’s like my brother.”
Ryan Cho, CC ’13 and a Spectator opinion columnist, who served alongside Edelman on the Open Housing Task Force, said that open housing provides an option for students who don’t identify as strictly male or female.
“There are students on campus who are gender-fluid, so gender-neutral housing gives an opportunity for those students to live in an environment that they’re most comfortable with,” Cho said.
When Columbia started moving toward a gender-neutral housing program in 2009, the New York Post wrote that Columbia students “will soon be able to live in sin—on their parents’ dime.”
But while the open housing program allows any two students to live together, Martinez advised students in romantic relationships not to share a room.
“A romantic relationship adds additional complications to establishing clear boundaries and expectations,” Martinez said. “If things get stressful, as they inevitably will, living together leaves little room for finding ‘space’ of one’s own.”
There are currently no plans to expand open housing to incoming first-year students.
Edelman said it would be difficult to implement it for first-years given that most of them don’t choose their roommates.
“At the same time, we recognize that for some incoming freshmen, housing may be the most important” part of coming to college, Edelman said. “There’s more work to be done to accommodate them ... They need to feel that Columbia is an inclusive and safe space.”