Growing Student Body Leads to Undergraduate Housing Shortage
For almost as long as Caltech had undergraduate students, the institute has guaranteed its students housing on campus for four years. This policy stood until 2021, when the Institute had a record yield rate of 54% of admitted students. This, combined with the numerous students who took a gap year during the 2020-21 school year, meant that there were too many students for the nine residences; “there [were] approximately 870 beds available with approximately 970 undergraduate students,” as stated in the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Housing, Joe Benethaum’s initial email to the undergraduate students relaying the housing changes. According to the Caltech housing requirement as stated by Bennethum, “Caltech requires that all first and second-year students live in campus housing.” Thus, Housing was forced to make the decision that up to 100 third- and fourth-year students would not be able to live in on-campus housing for their first year back from the pandemic.
With the 2021-2022 academic year being the first year on campus for two classes’ worth of students, and the return to campus for the other two classes, the housing dilemma caused significant backlash from the undergraduate students. For instance, as Bennethum’s original email was sent on June 29, 2021, pre-season upperclassmen athletes would have had up to three weeks to secure housing for the year, an already difficult task made more difficult due to the pandemic. Due to the backlash, former quarantine halls Marks and Braun were converted into doubles, despite their rooms originally being intended to house a single student. The upper floor of Braun remained as quarantine housing, with the lower floor allocated to regular housing. This stood until the first week of January 2023, when first floor residents were forced to move out due to a surge in COVID-19 cases on campus.
Despite the increase in beds with the opening of Marks and Braun, multiple students chose to live off campus for the academic year. One such student, Phillippa “Pippa” Richter (CS ‘23, Page & Ricketts) stated that the main reason she secured off-campus housing was due to both the original email sent by Bennethum and the opening of Marks and Braun. With the Bechtel lottery picks system, if a student had a “bad pick” they were unlikely to secure a bed in a Bechtel suite and likely would have ended up in Marks or Braun, undesirable due to the small room sizes, in addition to other factors, such as not living in the house. While Richter lived off campus during the 2021-22 school year, she returned to on-campus housing in the Fall of 2022, living in Ricketts Hovse due to the challenges of living off campus. For instance, given the heavy emphasis on collaboration at Caltech, it was difficult to collaborate on sets. Additionally, she felt a disconnect from other students while living off campus; Richter said it was “lonely and stressful,” in contrast to the close-knit nature of the Caltech community.
Katy Chu (CS ‘24, Blacker) shares a similar outlook, yet chose to remain off-campus for the 2022-23 academic year. Chu had moved into Braun due to a lack of housing in her affiliated house, and stated that she did not “think it was ready to be lived in yet. For around a week there was no filtered water, and COVID restrictions against entering other buildings made it very difficult to get filtered water from other places. There was also only one functioning washing machine and no hot water for showers.” Chu was able to leave Braun with the assistance of the housing office to cancel the housing contract at no cost, and received a prorated rate for the time before they could move out. Similar to Richter, Chu “found it difficult to be super involved in everything on campus.” She often ended up having to go to campus to socialize rather than having her friends go to her apartment, as she lived far from Caltech. However, she did say it was possible to make time for friends, and she enjoys having a pet cat that would be prohibited in Caltech housing. Although she is frustrated that she never experienced life on campus, she is remaining off-campus and is happy with her living situation.
Amongst other former Braun residents includes Shwetha Kunnam (EE ‘23, Page), who started a petition in an attempt to get partially subsidized rates for Marks and Braun housing. The petition cited the massively different room sizes between Marks and Braun rooms in comparison to double rooms in the houses. Kunnam originally picked into Braun second floor but was moved to the first due to the quarantine housing allocation. As a critique to the housing office, they stated, “I firmly believe that everyone in the world is always trying their best at any given moment. However, it appears that the housing office’s best is not good enough to even provide adequate options and information to less than 1000 undergrads.” Kunnam suggested the housing office be student run with work study and other payment as opportunities for students who do logistical work, in order to increase support for the student body. Adding to Chu’s remarks about the state of the Braun Residence, Kunnam described the “mold growing on the floor near the entrance” and the constant repairs done throughout fall 2021. Despite sending the petition to the housing office, Marks and Braun residents were not given a discounted rate on their housing contracts as “every undergrad on campus pays the same rate, regardless of the size or capacity of their room. It is simply a one bed rate.” The rate came into effect as an Institute policy to attempt to create equity on campus with the rotation system and differing accommodations.
After the surge of COVID-19 cases in January 2022, Braun first-floor residents were moved out of their rooms in order to open up more quarantine beds. Residents were placed throughout the different residences on campus, with attempts to place them within their affiliated house if possible. Residents were scattered throughout the Houses and Marks Residence, and all residents received a refund on their winter term housing due to the relocation.
Marks Residence once again houses undergraduates for the 2022-2023 academic year, with Braun being entirely reserved for quarantine housing. While both the Class of 2025 and Class of 2026 have large class sizes, there is no indication of such sizes continuing to grow. The current larger student body brought challenges to the limited housing spaces, but many students have come to enjoy their lives in off-campus housing, as is more common at larger universities. A recent email from Caltech administration announced the closure of the twice-weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing program, indicating a possible reconsideration of the use of Braun as quarantine housing. Regardless, reopening Braun could go a long way in increasing the amount of on-campus housing spaces, and the housing office will have to continue to ensure that as many students that desire on-campus housing receive it.