• Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Students Face Extreme Heat, Crowding in Summer Housing

BABBITT AND MINOR RESIDENCE HALLS, Dark Side - The approximately 240 students staying on campus this summer for full time employment (35 hours or more per week) with Hamilton experienced extreme and potentially dangerous heat in their dorms, regularly reaching above 90 ℉ and rarely dropping below 80 ℉. Students were often unable to cool their rooms and indoor temperatures were frequently significantly higher than outdoor temperatures, especially at night. In Minor Hall, approximately 20 students shared one kitchen per floor, causing congestion at meal times in the absence of college dining services. Many students were also confused by communications from the College regarding move-in and taxes on housing. Housing was considered a taxable benefit of employment, meaning students did not pay rent like in prior years.


Unabated Extreme Heat


The thermostat in the Minor third floor kitchen at 12:42 AM on July 20th, reading 93.3 ℉. The outside temperature at this time was approximately 73 ℉, 20 degrees cooler. Photo by Eric Santomauro-Stenzel ‘24.

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that healthy daytime temperatures should be below (converted Celsius to Fahrenheit) 89.6 ℉, and nighttime temperatures ought to be below 75.2 ℉. Extreme heat swept the country and world this summer, with nearly half of US residents facing heat advisories in July alone. Most regions across the country saw above-average temperatures, and according to experts will only continue to increase due to human-caused global heating. Extreme heat already kills more people in the US every year than any other weather event. Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Steering Committee member of Hamilton’s Sustainability Working Group Aaron Strong explained in an email to Monitor that Central New York’s temperatures fit these heat trends.


“May 2022 was +6°F above the 1981-2010 baseline. June and July (so far) are each +2°F above the 1981-2010 baseline. [If] you look at the average highs, lows and overall average temps for 2022, it basically looks like May 2022 was a normal June and June 2022 was a normal July. So yes, it's been unusually warm. And in fact every month other than January this year has been warmer than the 1981-2010 average. Which was already warmer than earlier in the 20th century. So, basically, uh, the climate is changing and it's getting warmer.”


Dark side buildings like Babbitt and Minor were originally built in the 1960’s for the founding of Kirkland College when temperatures were significantly lower than today. The buildings do not have air conditioning and are built of thick concrete, insulating heat in the cold Clinton winter. As the climate crisis worsens, however, Hamilton will be faced with decisions about renovating its campus and updating its policies to adapt to a new climate that stands in stark contrast to the institution’s 229 year history of long freezing winters and short temperate summers.


Students felt this firsthand. Summer Babbitt Hall resident Christian Hernandez ‘24 shared that, “The last couple of weeks, there have been some days where it's like, 90, humidity is really high” in an early August interview. Hernandez, who lived on the third floor where heat would rise through the day, said, “It just really hasn't been the most pleasurable living experience.”


First floor Minor resident Salwa Sidahmed ‘23 agreed. “It is so hot. I don't know what's going on in my room. But I think I step out into the hallway, and it's a lot colder. So I just have like one of those box fans blasting 24/7. And it's loud, like you can hear it [from the hallway].” She explained, “It would kind of be unbearable to be in this space without air conditioning. It's just super hot.”


Residential Life policy bars students from using air conditioning in their rooms. Many students, including Hernandez, left their doors open to circulate air. “I've been trying to leave my door open while I'm at work, which is something that I don't typically want to do, but it's the only way that when I come back and won't be as hot. I left it closed one time, and I couldn't even go inside without getting a headache.” Fans often weren’t enough, either. “I put like two fans [on], but also, I feel like it's just a waste of electricity leaving fans on as well. So I try not to do that as much, but then it’s just extremely hot. So there's really no solution to this situation.”


Asked via email what Residential Life did to mitigate extreme heat in dorms this summer, Residential Life Director Ashley Place and Assistant Director Tanith Sherman told Monitor, “Facilities Management would be better suited to speak to the issues created when students attempt to install their own air conditioning units that leads to the College’s policy regarding why air conditioning units are not permitted in the residence halls.” Place and Sherman also said Facilities Management would be better suited to answer questions about how the College will address extreme heat in housing in the future.


Associate Vice President for Facilities and Planning Mike Klapmeyer told Monitor via email the reason AC is not permitted is “safety concerns associated with improper installation and because these units require a significant amount of energy to operate. In older residence halls, like Babbitt and Minor, power to rooms is often insufficient to accommodate the demand.” He continued, “Hamilton College is committed to delivering a safe and sustainable campus in response to climate change, recognizing the need to offer more conditioned buildings as temperatures rise. As part of our Climate Action Plan, we also recognize conditioning [in this context, “conditioning” includes both heating and cooling] our buildings is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions on campus. Therefore, we will continue to leverage sustainable technologies such as ground-source heat pumps to meet our modernization needs. “


Hamilton announced in March 2022 that it moved its carbon neutrality goal from 2050 to 2030 following a proposal from the Sustainability Working Group – of which Director Place is a member – and approval from the Board of Trustees. As Klapmeyer shared, the announcement included ground-source heat pumps. The full plan has not been released publicly to date, but the 2017 Climate Action Plan linked on the College’s official sustainability page includes a brief section on heating and cooling. It reads, “Heating and cooling guidelines for the campus are intended to balance productivity and comfort with efforts to minimize energy consumption. In warmer months, cooling will be adjusted to between 76 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.” Babbitt and Minor temperatures this summer rarely met this goal.


In the interim, Klapmeyer told Monitor, “Until residence halls like Babbitt and Minor are renovated, Facilities Management will partner with Residential Life to develop tips for students to keep their living spaces as cool as possible during hot summer days, including an emphasis on hydration and knowing where on campus to take advantage of air-conditioned spaces. The high temperatures experienced this summer are a good reminder that students should contact their RA to report any facilities issues. When RAs are unavailable, students may call Facilities Management at 315-859-4500 during normal business hours or Campus Safety after hours and weekends at 315-859-4141.”


In a statement to Monitor, Student Assembly President and summer Babbitt Hall resident Emily Jiang ‘25 said, “All I really have to say is that as temperatures climb higher, with the weather consistently in the 80s-90s for weeks, it's unreasonable to have students in dorms with no AC. Fans simply aren't enough, and I've resorted to spraying myself with water to cool down. Especially if someone is quarantining or self-isolating, it's impossible to expect students to be comfortable in these temperatures in the dorms, which can climb to 100 to the point where it's significantly hotter inside the room than outside. (Not to mention in Babbitt you cannot quarantine with the bathrooms.) Additionally, there have been consistent issues with the wifi, and many students are unable to access WiFi outside of academic buildings, with HelpDesk not really being able to fix it.” For students with emotional support animals (ESAs) or those quarantining for COVID-19, leaving the door open wasn’t an option. It would appear that, at least for summer 2022, Hamilton did not take concrete steps to mitigate extreme heat in dorms.


Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen


According to Director Place and Assistant Director Sherman, the number of students living on campus during summer 2022 was significantly higher than in previous years. They shared that, compared to this summer’s ~240 students, summer 2021 had ~165 and summer 2019 had ~110. Students did not live on campus summer 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Minor Hall, which has a capacity of 64 students, has a kitchen with a stove, microwave, refrigerator, sink, and cabinets on each floor. During the year, almost all students are on the unlimited or 14-meal meal plans and the kitchens see sporadic use. Over the summer, however, Commons, McEwen, and Diner are closed and student workers are responsible for their own meals. That meant most students in Minor were competing for limited cooking space at meal times, especially dinner. Babbitt residents avoided these issues because there are kitchens in each suite of six people.


Sarah Ahrens ‘24, who lived on the second floor, also expressed some frustration. “It has been somewhat stressful trying to work around the other people on my floor because I don't feel comfortable.” She continued, “If there's like a large group of people in the kitchen, I don't want to interrupt what they're doing.” Ahrens said she frequently began cooking dinner at 4:30 PM to avoid the rush and used her own fridge in her room for most food. Overall, however, she appreciated Minor’s more independent living compared to Babbitt’s suites.


Citing crowded kitchens and issues with cleanliness on the first floor, Sidahmed told Monitor “I rarely cook here anymore.” Sidahmed said most meals she had little choice but to utilize the Days-Massolo Center kitchen halfway across campus because of the difficulty in securing cooking space in Minor. “At least for Minor, I feel like one kitchen per floor is not really that adequate considering how many people there are.”


There were also instances of interpersonal tension due to the crowding and heavy kitchen use. On the third floor, this took the form of anonymous passive aggressive conflict about cleanliness. In early June, a post-it note appeared on the microwave calling on people to clean their own messes, especially on the stove where a grease fire could occur. In the following days, another note appeared responding to the first, the author saying they took the liberty to clean the mess despite not causing it and criticizing the first individual for leaving a note instead of addressing the problem themselves.


The notes left in the Minor third floor kitchen. Photo taken June 12th, 2022. Photo by Eric Santomauro-Stenzel ‘24.

Residential Life took steps to mitigate the crowded cooking situation in Minor following student complaints early in the summer. On June 8th, Assistant Director Sherman sent an email to Minor residents announcing that Facilities Management would be installing an additional refrigerator on each floor. “It has come to our attention that there is a need for more refrigerator space in Minor Hall for the summer session.” She continued, “We hope this will help with the congestion you have been feeling with the refrigerators.” Her email closed requesting that students “not use refrigerators in academic buildings, or in areas that are not your summer residence hall.” A third fridge was installed on the first floor for several days before being moved to its place on the third floor, and at some point additional microwaves were also added.


While these additional refrigerators added extra capacity, they were soon filled to the brim, too. “I think it has helped. I know at one point there were three fridges down here, and they were all used up like full to the max… I think that shows that even two fridges isn't enough, if you have a third one that got full,” said Sidahmed.


Many students continued to rely on alternatives like ordering out, purchasing their own appliances, eating ready-to-eat microwaveable meals, and, against Residential Life’s directive, storing food in fridges elsewhere on campus out of necessity. However, as the weeks passed some residents left campus after completing their jobs, slowly making the kitchens more available towards the end of the summer.


Place and Sherman also acknowledged the crowding issue in a statement to Monitor, saying, “Since there were more students on campus this summer, it did have an impact on how full our summer buildings were and as a result impacted kitchen appliance usage. As we collaborate with other College offices we will take the students’ experiences this summer into account when advocating for student summer housing buildings for next summer.”


Asked why Minor was selected for summer housing as opposed to dorms with significantly more capacity for cooking like Milbank Hall (which is nearly identical to Babbitt) or Morris House, Place and Sherman shared, “There are many factors that contribute to which buildings will be available for the summer months. Most of our buildings are used for other purposes during the summer, such as reunion and summer programs, and therefore are not available for summer housing. We also must take into account repairs and routine maintenance that must be done in buildings when deciding which buildings can be used.” This year, alumni reunions were the weekend of June 9th - 12th and one of the summer programs, HEOP, began in the second half of the summer.


Miscommunication and Confusion


Some students also said that their experience with moving into their summer rooms was confusing. Hernandez and some of his friends moved directly from their spring semester room to their summer rooms. “I remember there being a lot of miscommunication with everything, especially with Res Life not not giving us clear information on exactly what time we were supposed to move into Babbitt. And then what time we have to be out of our own rooms.”


Hernandez, who lived in Milbank Hall last spring, recounted being told by Residential Life that students were not permitted to leave anything in their Milbank common rooms while transitioning to the summer, as the rooms would be cleaned and items may be thrown out. However, they were not yet permitted to move to their new rooms. “A bunch of us told Res Life that we had nowhere to put those items. And they basically were like, ‘you need to pile it into your room.’ But for a lot of us, we only have singles. And we already have a bunch of other things in our room. So there was no way of putting our stuff anywhere else.” He said that eventually Residential Life agreed to let them label their things in the common room.


Hernandez further claimed that Residential Life changed its instructions for move-in times multiple times. He says that on the day he was scheduled to move, Residential Life moved his time from 10 AM to 3 PM. “So I'm packing my stuff. And then I got a phone call from Res Life, saying that someone is trying to move into my room and that I needed to take myself out as soon as possible. But then I told them, ‘you told me I couldn't move in until 3pm.’ And they said, ‘well, is it clean?’” Hernandez said it was and began moving. “Supposedly I was going to have a couple of days; I think it was like a day or two to fully move out. Not like a couple of hours. And so I'm trying to move all my things out before 3 PM into my new room that they said wasn't going to be ready for another couple hours.”


“I don't understand why it was such a difficult process and so stressful on both ends, because I feel like this should not be a problem for how many years they've been doing this,” Hernandez told Monitor.


Ahrens also had a move-in issue. She was originally scheduled to move in the same day she began her summer job. Ahrens told Monitor she contacted Residential Life and they said she would be able to move in earlier. “But when I did show up at Campus Safety, the date on the key said that I wasn't supposed to get it until [Monday] June 6th.” She says Campus Safety then contacted Residential Life before giving her the key. Had Ahrens arrived at a time Residential Life was not available, it is possible that she would not have been able to access her room. Other students experienced similar issues with a move-in date set to the same day as their job beginning.


Asked in broad terms about the cause of move-in confusion, Place and Sherman wrote, “More than 20% of the summer housing information emails that were sent to students (which contained their move in information) were never opened or read. This may have contributed to student confusion. It is very important that students read the correspondence that is sent to them in order to have the details that they need. In addition, the arrival dates of students are based on the date provided by their summer employers/faculty they are working with. Sometimes summer supervisors provide dates that more accurately reflect dates of work than intended move in and move out dates, which is understandable. We always try to improve the clarity of our communication and make corrections when we are made aware of these types of discrepancies.” Residential Life can see how many students open their emails with their mail merge software.


More confusion arose among some summer residents in response to a June 9th email from Associate Vice President for Finance and Controller Carol Gable. The relevant portion of the email read, “Due to the recent shift to free housing provided by Hamilton College for all students who are eligible to stay on campus this summer, I am writing to convey some important tax information. If a student is receiving free housing while working for Hamilton College, the value of the housing is considered a taxable benefit and must be reported to the IRS and New York State Department of Revenue. For this reason, the value of the free housing provided to student workers this summer will be included in the amount of wages reported on their W-2 statement for 2022. The value of this benefit depends on the number of nights a student has access to a room so may range from $30 to $700.”


Ahrens and other students were confused by the email. “I didn't really understand what the tax itself even meant. I still really don't.” She continued, “But I'm still not 100% sure if it, like, comes out of the paycheck, or if it's something else.” Some other students’ initial reading of the email was that they may owe up to $700.


“I don't really understand it. I think it's a bit confusing. But I just kind of saw it, read it, and then put it aside saying to myself 'I'll have to figure that out whenever tax time comes,’” said Sidahmed. She explained, “I feel like the average college student isn't going to know too, too much about taxes, and what this means in terms of filing your own taxes and your assets, etc.”


Gable clarified her message in an email to Monitor. “I apologize for any confusion about taxes on free housing. The value of the housing will be included in a student's wages reported on their 2022 W-2 and, depending on a student's total annual compensation, they may owe some tax on it. The possible tax is dependent on the value of free housing received and the student's tax rate (which depends on their total annual wages). But [it] will certainly be small, not even close to $700.”


“Traditionally, summer students paid a weekly rate for their housing. It's my understanding that [then Dean of Students and Chief Diversity Officer] Terry Martinez requested that students approved to stay on campus this summer receive free housing and Senior Staff approved. My office communicated that if the student will be on campus to work for Hamilton, the IRS considers the free housing a part of taxable compensation. Not sure if that was clearly communicated to students or not, but I sent the email to provide a head's up as I don't like people to be surprised when they receive their tax documents. I received a few questions in response to my email and students seemed satisfied when I explained they may or may not owe a small tax amount on this benefit.”


Summer 2023


Looking to next summer, when students continue to live and work on campus, there are still many questions left unanswered about students’ living conditions. While it is certain temperatures will continue to rise due to the climate crisis, whether housing will be free of charge from the College again, what tips, policies, and renovations Residential Life and Facilities Management will develop to address extreme heat, which dorms the College will allot for full-time summer residents versus the weekend reunion visitors and other programs, and much more, remain open questions.


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