It’s supposed to be a classic part of the American college experience: dorms packed with bright-eyed young adults ready for friendship and misadventure in smartly decorated double rooms. When I was accepted to the University of Washington (UW), I subscribed to this idyllic vision of what it means to be a college kid—until I was denied on-campus housing and suddenly had to contend with Seattle’s outrageous housing market.
“The demand for on-campus housing is very high this year,” I was told in early August after applying for a spot in the dorms as a sophomore transfer student. “At this time, we strongly believe we will be able to assign you to a room on campus for autumn quarter.”
Another email came later that month: “At this time, we may be able to assign you to a room on campus for autumn quarter.”
And finally: “We sincerely regret we’re not able to confirm a room for you.”
With fall quarter closing in, I was left scrambling to find an apartment, and I wasn’t alone. Last year, the UW’s incoming freshman class was the largest it’s ever been. According to HFS, 115 students were placed in temporary housing, where they stayed until a room opened up. Another 127 were waitlisted until winter quarter.
Kaylee Hamilton, a transfer student from Pierce College, was one of those students in temporary housing. HFS had told her to look elsewhere for housing, but finding a place without school support wasn’t an option for her.
“I don’t have enough money to rent an apartment here and pay for utilities,” she explained. “Also, with this being my first year at a big school like this, I wanted to live on campus.”
Fortunately, HFS called Hamilton the next day and confirmed that she had been assigned one of the 12 bunks crammed in a ballroom in the UW’s Hansee Hall, and she was eventually relocated to a permanent dorm.
Meanwhile, I was scrambling to find an apartment off campus. After a week of running around the University District meeting up with potential roommates, I found a place: a one-bedroom, one-loft apartment fairly close to campus. For $600 a month, I share the loft, which overlooks the kitchen and living room. A third roommate enjoys the bedroom downstairs.
The lack of privacy means that the price is remarkable for the area, but the living situation comes with its quirks. Sharing a loft means that I have to be okay with people in the living room peering into my personal space. That reality hit me during my first weekend in the apartment.
My roommate Tori* brought friends over that Saturday night. I was upstairs in the loft, getting ready to go out. The group was downstairs drinking and admiring Tori’s new apartment.
“What’s up there?” I heard one man ask.
I suddenly realized that a group of intoxicated college kids were likely staring up into the loft, where I was half-dressed, looking around for clean clothes to wear. I dropped to the floor, and heard someone begin to ascend the rickety staircase.
“Hey, I’m naked up here!” I yelled, not sure what else to say. The footsteps stopped, and Tori yelled an apology up to the second floor. I stayed upstairs for the rest of the night, too embarrassed to come down. Since then, Tori has explained to all guests that the space just above the kitchen is, in fact, a private area occupied by two other roommates.
The loft is sectioned into two rooms via a denim curtain; Mary, my other roommate, occupies one side, and I occupy the other. Some nights, the light on the other side doesn’t turn off until 2 a.m. Other nights, Taylor Swift’s entire discography plays, barely muted by the cloth barrier. When this happens, I stare bitterly at the curtain, angry that I’m forced to share such a cramped space. I have to remind myself that nothing is stopping me from moving to a more spacious apartment—nothing, that is, except an extra 400 bucks a month.
Living off-campus, I can no longer waltz into a dining hall on campus to enjoy meals. Instead, I’m neck-deep in Trader Joe’s meal-prep recipes. I even follow three different Trader Joe’s inspiration Instagram accounts.
For me, transitioning to off-campus housing was like flying blind into a tornado of new responsibilities. It seemed like every day there was a new challenge. When you live in dorms, there’s a university-sanctioned support system that you can rely on. RAs enforce quiet hours. HFS takes care of cable, Wi-Fi, and electricity. UW dorms even have study rooms, lounges, and kitchens that are regularly cleaned.
In an apartment, this support system gets thrown out the window. How do I pay utilities? How do I move furniture up a tiny spiral staircase? How do I make nice with my loud neighbors? These are questions that my roommates and I struggle with in our extremely close quarters, but after several months of living off campus, I’m starting to get the hang of it.
My living situation wasn’t what I pictured for my college life, but figuring things out by myself feels pretty good. Just as dorm culture is an essential part of the college experience, so is growing up and learning how to be an adult. Moving off campus—and dealing with the realities of Seattle’s housing market—has allowed me to do that.
*Names have been changed