Coronavirus Death in Graduate Student Housing Near Columbia Frightens Community; Residents Have to Quickly Leave

Bags packed and ready to go at the International House. Photos taken by student residents.

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.

NEWS | 46 comments | permalink
    1. Beth says:

      WTF! Why weren’t they all placed on 14 days quarantine??? Now they are spreading throughout the city ? Hotels? Alumni? This is nuts!

      • Bnyc says:

        Exactly! How incredibly stupid to not quarantine them all! Do they not understand how a virus spreads?

      • Anthony says:

        Agree completely! Does the city or state — or even Columbia’s medical facilities — realize this is taking place? Sending hundreds of people who may have been exposed out into the community seems insane!

      • LK says:

        Unbelievable! Where is the health department? Together with a positive test should come an offer that one can’t refuse – quarantine. I’m sure administration does not want to deal with it and kicking people out – they should be held responsible for that…

      • ben says:

        How do I upvote this comment? Incompetency from the I-House admins reflects poorly on Columbia.

    2. Karina Moruzan says:

      Why can’t these students be tested? They have a right to know.

    3. Carol says:

      If the residents of IH have been exposed to COVID-19, it is extremely irresponsible to launch them into the general population.

      It would be more prudent to require each of them to self-quarantine, and to facilitate that.

    4. F J Meyerson says:

      This makes no sense.
      The article says the infected person is likely someone with whom many of the residents come into contact.
      So why aren’t they all being quarantined instead of being forced to leave?

    5. Lu says:

      Columbia should not turn these people out. They should self quarantine in place. What are people thinking? Totally irresponsible.

    6. TravelgalNYC says:

      This is so irresponsible! How can they let all these students go without quarantining them? Shouldn’t all ‘known contacts’ of a positive coronavirus case be tested? Please, whomever has contacts to the building Admin, call and insist they handle this more responsibly. Now these students will spread throughout the city.

    7. Adam says:

      The University should use the space for quarantining the residents who do not have another place to live.

    8. shewrites says:

      This seems egregiously irresponsible on the part of Columbia (and I’m an alumna). They should make sure those students get tested, get housed, and get tracked to make sure they are and stay healthy. I am ashamed. I trust this will all come back to smack Columbia in the face because once again, they’re taking no responsibility for those people who have paid tens of thousands of dollars to study there.

      • Bob says:

        IH is not part of Columbia. It houses students and young professionals from all over the globe. Residents are not just affiliated with Columbia. But what it did is completely irresponsible. The burden should be fell on IHouse.

    9. Catherine says:

      This is so irresponsible- keep everyone there at I-House and test them – quarantine for 14 days instead of unleashing these poor students on the rest of the population! Where are the health officials?

    10. IHouse Resident says:

      This is all true, we didn’t even know that there is a resident who was admitted to a hospital. I’m glad I was able to find a room in the apartment where all of the tenants have left NYC. But what if I couldn’t? What if I am a carrier without symptoms? NYC administration should fine I-House administration for being irresponsible and contributing to the pandemic.

    11. Lorene Farnsworth says:

      I wish I could take a student in, if I had the room I would.

    12. Fred says:

      You all need to seriously consider filing a lawsuit to stop this. The residents are in a terrible spot, but so is the surrounding community. It’s insane to tell the residents to “spread out around the city” after being potentially exposed.

    13. Wendi says:

      These students would not be able to properly self-quarantine, since they are living in a dorm setting with communal bathrooms, common areas and a shared dining room. They would not be able to realistically maintain 6 feet distance from each other. So they really have to leave. Self-quarantining, and not being tested, for someone who doesn’t have symptoms, is now what’s being recommended because there aren’t enough tests, or protective equipment for the the personnel to administer the tests.

    14. Marie says:

      Columbia describes IH as a “partnered institution” along with Teachers College on it’s Off-Campus Housing site. It promotes IH as a trusted housing resource for its grad students to utilize. Yet when its “partner” ousts students from its’ dorms who need to be quarantined,- not integrated into new households, Columbia doesn’t step up & turns a blind eye— betraying its students and the public trust. This is immoral, unethical, and criminal!

    15. Evan McDonald says:

      I just posted this on Twitter. Please retweet to get the word out.

      @Columbia #PresidentCuomo #InternationalHouse. Why are all residents of NYC’sColumbia’s Intl House who were exposed to covid19 being released into community untested?

    16. Jane J. says:

      International House is not managed by Columbia or owned by it. Check out the Wikipedia page about it. It’s just that grad students from Columbia live there often.

    17. M. Drew says:

      Where is I-House President Calvin Sims in all of this?? Nowhere to be found. He’s “leading”, if you can even call it that, from the rear…

    18. Josh says:

      Did this grad student have underlying conditions? I’m assuming the student was young. Sorry to hear of this loss of life

    19. Liz says:

      If this is not a dorm per se, why are the tenants not covered by NYC housing laws? Would those living in coop apts. be tossed out should a neighbor have the virus? of course not!

    20. Bob says:

      This is very very serious incident and should be brought to the attention of the city hall and the media. I House is possibly creating clusters of new infections by sending residents who might have already be infected to the communities. It should have self-isolate for two weeks. Where is the director of this place? Where is the Board? They should be held responsible for what they did.

    21. Kim says:

      This is nuts. They should all be quarantined. Instead Columbia is sending them out to the city?? This is CRAZY.

    22. Kevin says:

      I used to live in this international house. There were a lot of community activities, which meant the resident might have highly been exposed out to the community. This is a really terrible decision to launch them into the general public without any effective measures. It’s irresponsible.

    23. Private says:

      A bunch of international students moved into my building over the past few days. I’m guessing they came from I-house. I live on 109th st. Now I’m really scared.

    24. John says:

      The decision to evict residents is totally illegal. In accordance with New York landlord/tenant law nobody who stayed in a place longer than 30 days cannot be evicted without proper legal procedures.
      If the residents refuse to move out International House cannot do anything, they cannot force them out. International House has to go in the landlord/tenant court in order to be able to evict a resident. And even more doing what they are doing in the name of safety is hypocritical and I can jeopardize the safety of hundreds of New York residents. Shame

    25. Evan McDonald says:

      Article in Columbia Spectator.

      Please contact DOH, city council reps, any reporters who might cover this, mayor,etc. Send them link to this page, Tell them to read the comments. Use email and Twitter, which journalists and politicians (or their staff) read.

    26. Danielle Remp says:

      After spending hours on the phone, I tried the 26th Precinct. They are on top of it now.

    27. Evan McDonald says:

      I just emailed this to the news editor of the Columbia Spectator.

      Thank you for reporting on the evictions. It appears to be so irresponsible to release so many people who have been exposed and may have contracted the virus into the larger community.

      Do you know if they were tested, asked to self isolate, etc.? Although I suppose since so many of them had nowhere to go these sensible and otherwise required actions were not possible for them.

      I wonder if you could tell me the best way to contact other reporters who would cover this, and authorities who would step in to get these people isolated, if they haven’t already. Specifically names, email addresses, Twitter handles, facebook pages, etc.

      There’s currently a active discussion about the issue here: (I included a link to this article.)

      I’ll post any info I get.

    28. Evan McDonald says:

      I just emailed Mark Levine, the City Council rep for the district where International House is located. There’s an email link on his webpage:

      I also wrote to Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President.

      I plan to call them too and encourage you to do the same.

    29. MB/UWSer says:

      Oh gosh this is troubling on all counts. Feelings of fear over-riding the ability to think and catapulting others into flight.

      This is a most serious issue. BUT, please is there any way to get the word out and reinforce HOW one is to respond, especially those who are responsible for a group of others’ lives.

      Maybe an URGENT public service announcement “when in doubt, call 311 covid” for further action. Or contact the NYPD for instructions. It would seem to me when something like this occurs, to HALT, and everyone freeze until safe and appropriate instructions are given. Some clear direction of steps to take – 1st step: Stop. Think. Or maybe Pause – which seems to be the key first direction. Then follow with next right actions.

      Pointing fingers, getting angry is only going to add to the troubles. A clear road map needs to make its way to any and all in charge.

    30. UWSResident says:

      You should also alert Gov. Cuomo’s office. His office is overseeing this issue now that it has been raised to a statewide emergency. They will take action or encourage it to happen.

    31. Evan McDonald says:

      Just got this from Councilmember Mark Levine’s office:

      Our office is working very hard to keep the student-residents of International House from being evicted. As a matter of public health, it would be unwise to force people who may have been exposed to individuals that tested positive with the coronavirus to look for new accommodations, with families or friends who may not have been exposed otherwise.

      We are working with the Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, and others to keep these students in their homes.

      • UWSResident says:

        This should be forwarded to Governor Cuomo’s office.

        This is in violation of State Directives.

        Hundreds of people are involved here. This is not a local political game.

        It needs to be moved up the food chain.

      • Private says:

        Thank you and that’s great, but it may be too late. A lot have already moved out and into apartment buildings in the area. Quite a few moved into mine on 109th between Thursday and today.

    32. Rich says:

      This building has no association or affiliation with Columbia. It is privately owned.

      • UWSResident says:

        It is a recommended housing option for Columbia grad students. And frankly, what is the relevance here? We are trying to protect the public health. Your protection of Columbia’s liability really isn’t part of the equation here.

    33. M says:

      Call Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilman Mark Levine about this:
      Brewer: (212) 669-8300 (1 Centre St.) or (212) 531-1609
      Levine:212-928-6814 or 212-788-7007