By Brett Forrest
Panic, anger, and fear. Residents living at the International House — a dormitory building mostly housing graduate students just off 122nd Street and Riverside Drive — expressed these emotions after learning two members of their community tested positive for coronavirus. One of them died Saturday from complications related to the virus, according to an email sent to residents late Saturday night.
The person was not immediately identified. The lack of information caused anguish among some students, both because of their grief and the fear that they have been exposed to the disease. Some residents worry they were likely in contact with the individual since the International House’s South Building, or I-House as it’s often called, consists of dormitory-style living with shared bathrooms, common areas, and a community dining hall.
“I had a panic attack. I’m not going to lie,” said one longtime I-House resident who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal. “It could’ve been anyone. What if it’s someone I knew and interacted with? If someone who I know is passing away, I think I have the right to know who it was for my own emotional sanity.”
This comes as the entirety of the I-House South Building was abruptly told to vacate with eight days notice, leaving hundreds of people without a place to live even as the city restricts almost all movement to stem the crisis.
An email from the I-House President’s Office last Thursday was the first instance to reveal a community member had tested positive for COVID-19. The email stated many residents and staff were likely in close contact with the individual and “based on these developments at the House, for the health and safety of our community, we will require all residents of I-House South to depart by Friday, March 27th.”
The move was a blow to many of the I-House’s international population who don’t necessarily have an easy alternative for housing.
“The fact that I-House has thrown us out on the street and shown zero moral responsibility for the community both inside and outside the I-House shows this administration’s lack of concern for the residents,” said the same resident.
In a statement to the press, I-house wrote the “decision to close down the South Building, as difficult and urgent as it was, had only one purpose: To protect the health and, potentially, the lives of the residents and staff of I-House.”
The International House, located on Riverside Drive between Tiemann Place and West 122nd Street, consists of two buildings, North and South, with residents from over 100 countries, one-third of whom are Americans. Residents are primarily graduate students from New York-area colleges and universities or young working professionals. The South Building has dormitory-style living while the North Building has more traditional apartment living.
Though not being forced to vacate at the moment, the email from last Thursday additionally stated, “Given the interconnectivity between I-House South and North, we are urging residents of I-House North to leave the premises as soon as possible.”
The Facebook group for this year’s residents immediately sprung into action with offers for housing from I-House alumni and current residents. Other posts asked about the legality of such a move forcing people onto the street with only eight days notice.
The International House released a statement saying they are providing residents with resources for alternative housing including working with universities, negotiating low hotel rates, and identifying short-term lease options with alumni connections.
“International House will continue to assist its residents, and no resident will be left without somewhere to relocate,” the press release said.
However, some residents don’t think the I-House administration is doing enough. Another resident speaking on condition of anonymity said the alumni community took it upon themselves to help the residents find housing, not at the administration’s direction.
As for the hotel options, the resident doesn’t think it’s any better than searching for themselves.
“It’s not comparable rates. It’s expensive. I don’t think it’s a solution,” said the resident. “I can’t go home. There’s a travel ban. I’m scared if I leave I won’t be able to come back. And I don’t want to take it [coronavirus] to other states or countries.”
Many of the students have been able to find housing for the time being, the resident said, but added that many people’s “biggest concern is finding housing where they can quarantine themselves because they think they’ve been exposed at I-house.”
The resident, like many others, was able to find temporary housing from friends for the time being. Overall, they haven’t been happy with the communication, or lack thereof, from the I-House administration.
“I’m really frustrated. I think the community itself of residents have come together. But the administration is supposed to take point. They left everyone floating. There’s been nothing from them.”
This reporter was a resident member of the International House from August 2019-March 18, 2020.