Housing heart-to-hearts: How RAs can help guide tough conversations

Photo credit: Roberta Macedo

With housing applications open and students scrambling to sign leases for next year, roommate breakup season is officially upon us.

Switching roommates after winter break may be inconvenient and dramatic, but the timing makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is stepping over piles and piles of moving boxes and seeing name tags ripped off of doors four weeks into the semester. This is happening more often than you’d think, and resident assistants could play a larger role in reducing the inevitable drama and quashing conflict before it starts.

What is it about this time of the semester that’s so problematic? I’d guess that housing applications for next semester have a lot to do with the heightened tensions and frequent moves.

Navigating the housing situation for next year in such an expensive market where demand exceeds supply creates an immense amount of tension, resulting in conflict among current roommates and potential roommates-to-be. Students would greatly benefit from an RA’s guidance on handling tricky conversations and decisions about living arrangements.

According to UM’s website, RAs should “provide support, continuing experiences, and engagement for on-campus students that promotes community and success at the University and beyond.” Just as RAs require roommates to sign agreements at the beginning of the year, RAs should provide opportunities to discuss housing options and guide students through the necessary but difficult and potentially sensitive conversations. For instance, RAs can help potential roommates talk through budgeting, something that’s always awkward, to help mitigate potential conflict or embarrassment. For residents uncomfortable with talking to their RAs, budgeting spreadsheets could be provided that would help students understand their housing options.

“I definitely think it would be feasible to have the guidance, I feel like that kind of is part of what we’re supposed to do a little bit anyway,” said Jake Newiger, a senior in the Frost School of Music and RA of three years.

In reference to offering conversations specifically surrounding money, Newiger said, “I definitely think it would be reasonable, and, now that you bring it up, would be something that would be useful in our RA training because they don’t really walk through budgeting with us.”

Making matters more difficult, finances often involve family, which potentially comes with guilt. There’s no question that living in Miami and attending UM is expensive. Asking family members to front that cost not only can make students feel like a burden, but explaining that feeling to future roommates can be very difficult and requires vulnerability. Leaving students, especially freshmen, to handle these complicated conversations and emotions without guidance is a recipe for roommate ruin.

If family members support the cost of tuition or housing, their opinions will likely come into play. It often falls on students to initiate conversations surrounding housing simply because they tend to have more information than the families.

But when should this family discussion happen? If everyone has a conversation with their family at different stages in the process, solidifying a plan becomes nearly impossible.

For instance, your friend may think her parents are fine with her living off campus, so you begin touring apartments. Three days before the deadline to apply to live in Lakeside closes, she finally calls her mom who immediately shuts the idea down. Now you’re both stressed and scrambling for a new plan.

It doesn’t help that UM’s housing timeline is confusing and doesn’t distinguish between appointment time versus housing application. An RA guiding the process and encouraging residents to talk to their families by a set date would clear up some of the confusion and hopefully prevent last-minute surprises.

The next potentially awkward and nuanced conversation arises when you must inform your current roommate that you won’t be living together again.

If you choose to have this conversation at all, it could go one of the following ways:

Photo credit: Roberta Macedo

Scenario one: You and your roommate equally dislike each other or it’s clear that you both just don’t want to live together again. In this case, a quick conversation about not rooming together can’t hurt and is essential to confirm you’re on the same page.

This conversation also shows basic respect for one another by not leaving anything up in the air and is the mature thing to do. While an RA may not be needed here, the conversation has the potential to turn hostile if you both dislike one another, and a mediator couldn’t hurt.

Scenario two: You and your roommate are friendly and live well together, but haven’t discussed next year yet. You don’t want to keep living with your roommate, but you’re pretty sure your roommate assumes you’re living together next year. This conversation will be hard and awkward, but you should initiate it anyway if you value your friendship with your roommate. Just because you’re close and enjoy each other’s company doesn’t mean you have to live together again. It’s okay to want a change.

Hopefully, your roommate takes the news well, but if they don’t, there should be someone armed with information and readily available for the fallout (hint: I’m talking about your RA).

Scenario three: Scenario three begins the same as scenario two, but in this case, you push off the conversation until the very last minute or don’t have it at all, despite having known for a while that you won’t be living together again. This scenario leaves your current roommate scrambling, and likely causes problems within the friendship.

While your roommate may have assumed you’d be living together, you are the one who let the assumption continue, which isn’t particularly nice. If an RA had been pushing residents to have this conversation sooner, this whole situation and subsequent stress or loss of friendship may have been avoided. RAs could even send surveys to residents to get a better sense of how they could help steer the conversation.

“I think it definitely is one of those things that unfortunately people could take personally even though it’s not meant to be that way. I would be happy to facilitate a conversation with both parties,” Newiger said.

While these extra conversations may appear to place a large burden on the RAs, they are here to help their residents, and guiding these conversations is a crucial part of that. There’s no doubt our RAs work hard –– I’ve seen my RA working the front desk at sunrise and hear him doing rounds at midnight.

However, I’ve also stopped to chit-chat with my RA and others while they work. Many of these conversations could easily happen during an RA’s shift at the desk or when it’s their turn to stay in and monitor the floor.

Talking about money, housing and roommates can be very emotional and nuanced, and a little structure and guidance throughout the process could help simplify it and prevent conflict before it starts. It’s not worth it to let these hard but necessary conversations ruin friendships. And to everyone yet to go through the Lakeside lottery … good luck (you’ll probably need it).

Katie Karlson is a freshman majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and minoring in sustainable business.