Finding housing when I was told to leave

A Ring-tum Phi reporter shares her experience facing discrimination and difficulty finding a place to stay


Jin Ni, ’22, moved into her new home. Photo courtesy of Jin Ni.

Jin Ni

It was Friday, March 13. I was staring at my email at around 7:36 p.m., sitting with a friend in the dining room of Cook Out, shell-shocked. I felt disbelief, sorrow, anger, frustration – this was the worst-case scenario I could have imagined.

Later that night, I attended “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a truly moving oratorio. I held myself together through most of it.

I am not a person who cries easily. Even the deaths of dogs in movies usually elicit only an “aww” from me.

But by the end of “Considering Matthew Shepard,” I was crying. At first it was just a few tears that I wiped away. But when I gave flowers to Dr. Lynch and some of my friends in the show, I started crying again. And I just couldn’t seem to stop.

I’d like to say it was because of how amazing the show was (and it was). But I also think it was due to the sheer roller coaster of emotions that flooded me all week. Even now, I remember the anxiety, the stress and the simmering frustration at being helpless and watching the world fall apart one news article at a time. Then, realizing that I had to say goodbye to my friends. Then, realizing that I would need to go home.

I didn’t want to.

To give some background – I have a complicated relationship with my family. We function better apart than together. Thinking about going home filled me with a sense of dread. But my emotional complications aside, my mother and I are both individuals who are at higher risk of having severe reactions if we contract COVID-19. 

If I went home, I would have to fly. And that meant going through at least two major metropolitan airports – one in Washington, D.C. and one in Phoenix. Both see huge amounts of traffic on a day-to-day basis. What if one of the people I saw was a carrier? What if I touched a surface or breathed in the virus, or it got on my suitcase? What if I brought it right into my own home?

Weaker immune systems and respiratory problems run in my family. There was a chance we might not die from COVID-19, but there was also a chance that we might. I couldn’t take the risk.

So after weighing all those things, I decided to stay in Lexington.

I had sent an email to university housing right after the first email from the university discussing the changes came out on Friday, March 13. I needed permission to stay until it was safer for me to go home, I said. Nearly an hour later, I was told that I had approval, but should “monitor news and travel advisories” so I could make plans to go home as soon as possible.

I went to bed that night still anxious, but thought I had taken care of at least one problem. I woke the next morning to another email from Chris Reid in housing saying they could not accommodate my request and that I still needed to move out by Wednesday.

I had five days. Five days to figure out where I was going next. I felt like crying again.

Day 1 – Saturday, March 14

I made plans to go home with a good friend of mine who lived in New Jersey. She knew my situation and welcomed my company. Again, relief swept over me. I felt more secure knowing that I had a place to go. I started making preparations to move out.

Day 2 – Sunday, March 15

Around noon, I had a discussion with my friend’s mom. We decided that it might not be best for me to go up to New Jersey. She lived in a metropolitan area and had sons who were doctors. They were needed more than ever now, and were in and out of the house often to be on the frontlines of this health crisis. If I was at high risk, her home might not be the safest place for me. But she offered me her assistance in anything else I might need, whether that be financial or just making a few phone calls to people.

I was back to square one. Three days left to find a place to live.

Day 3 – Monday, March 16

I emailed university housing again. They offered me an extension until Saturday, March 22 to find alternate housing.

I started looking for places to stay in Lexington. I texted senior friends who lived off-campus. I called family in other states who might be willing to let me stay with them. I asked other friends what they were doing. 

The thing that bothered me throughout all of this was having to ask for help and burden other people. It was one thing to ask to stay for maybe a day or two, but staying for a few weeks or longer? Asking that of anyone was a lot.

But I knew the situation was only going to get worse. I needed a place where I could stay indefinitely.

Day 4 – Tuesday, March 17

I found a place to sublet for at least two months. It was the basement of the blue house, right across from Gaines. A couple of my senior friends were going back home and knew the entire place was going to be empty while they were gone. 

Again, I felt elation and relief. A place to go! A place to stay where I wouldn’t have to unnecessarily burden anyone! 

I went to meet the landlady later that afternoon. She lived in the house above, which was completely separated from the basement. As soon as she opened the door, she gave me a once-over. I introduced myself and asked if this was the right house, and she gave me a cold look, but waved me into the parlor nonetheless.

“Why do you want to stay here?” she asked.

I was taken aback. I had been told that my subletting had already been approved and that this meeting was more of an introduction. Instead, it felt like an interrogation.

I didn’t want to give my entire life history and I wasn’t comfortable with sharing so many personal details with a perfect stranger. I tried to string together some words to cover the bare minimum: I was high-risk and my mother was high-risk and I didn’t want to be a carrier if I went home.

She asked a few more questions. Things like if I would keep the place clean and if I was paying rent. 

“I’m very organized and I keep spaces clean. I honestly don’t need much,” I explained. “Just a place to stay and a kitchen to use so I can cook. I’m pretty self-sufficient. You won’t even know I’m here.”

The entire time, she kept studying me with an expression I couldn’t read. She didn’t seem very convinced.

“Both my son and I are high-risk as well,” she said, finally.

“Oh,” I said. I struggled again to find the right words. I really didn’t understand where she was coming from. Maybe she didn’t want three high-risk people in one house? Maybe she thought because I was a college student, I was already carrying something?

While I was trying to build my case, she continued. “We don’t want to take any chances,” she said. “It’s a Chinese virus, and what are you?” 

“Uh…Chinese,” I said. 

“We just don’t want any more risks in our home. So I’m sorry, but it’s a no.”

Then she walked me out and shut the door in my face before I could even say another word. 

Looks like I was back to the drawing board again.

I can’t even describe my emotions at that moment. I was somewhere between numb and defeated. I was so tired of everything. Every time I thought I had found a solution, it seemed to crumble right through my fingers. I went downstairs to where my senior friends lived and I sat on their couch with my head in between my hands for God only knows how long.

It only hit me when I went back to my apartment why I had been rejected. 

It’s a Chinese virus, and what are you?

What are you?

A question I’d been asked countless times in the past, usually without harmful intentions. But something told me that even before she asked the question, the landlady had already made up her mind about me. Normally, I could shrug off microaggressions and take them in stride. But that day, it felt like another weight on my shoulders.

My friends told me I should sue for discrimination.

“With what money? With what time?” I said.

I was still trying to find a place to go. My exchange with the landlady didn’t even feel like the biggest problem at the time.

Maybe I should go home, I thought that night. I started looking up flight tickets online for the next day.

Day 5 – Wednesday, March 18

The day before, a lot of my friends staying in town reached out to me or reached out for me to others they knew. They gave me phone numbers, the names of people. They told me to keep them updated. They offered me a place to at least store my things, even if they didn’t have space for me to stay.

So that Wednesday morning, I woke up to a message from a friend to call Professor Alison Bell. She and her husband teach archaeology at Washington and Lee, and they had a house in Lexington that I could stay in. It was in the middle of being remodeled so they could move in next year, and they told me it wasn’t much.

Ni moving into her new home. Photo courtesy of Jin Ni.

But I would’ve taken anything then. Heck, I would’ve slept on someone’s floor with their dog if it meant I could stay somewhere. Once you’ve slept in Leyburn Library, it’s not hard to fall asleep anywhere else. 

So when Professor Bell reached out to me, it seemed all too good to believe. A house? For me to stay in? By myself? 

By noon, she was taking me on a house tour. I couldn’t stop thanking her the entire time. I still can’t.

By 5 p.m., I was moving in my things. I didn’t have much – just some sheets, my textbooks, my laptop, all my leftover food.

By 10 p.m., I was tucked into my new bed. I felt calm and slept like a log for the best time since Friday.

I know that I am not the only student to struggle through all the uncertainty that plagues us right now. Our struggles all take different forms. It could be finding a place to live or finding mental health resources. It could be negotiating family life at home or being separated from friends. It could be boredom or feeling isolated. It could be financial problems or worry for family members, near or far. 

I don’t want to end this on a negative note. I know I should feel more, just somehow more offended or more enraged or more frustrated about what happened to me. But I already didn’t blame Washington and Lee administration. Everyone at our university was doing their best, and I respect all our faculty, administrators and staff for powering through this and making the best decisions they could for us, themselves and the wider community.

And what about the landlady who discriminated against me? Am I angry? Yes. But am I surprised? No. All things considered, it shouldn’t have happened and it was wrong, and so many people have told me that I should sue. But to me, this isn’t the kind of time where I want to take that added burden onto myself or place it on other people. It’s not worth my time or energy. There is enough to deal with.

It is also not the worst thing I have faced in my life as far as racial discrimination goes. Even as I type this right now, so many of my Asian-American peers across the United States are struggling with very visible physical, financial and social forms of discrimination. Less people going to Chinese restaurants. Asian-Americans being prohibited from entering stores. People that look like me but are just as American as anyone else are being beat up, spit at and being called names.

At least for me, things worked out for the best, and I was able to discover the kindness and strength of the people around me. People I’d never met reached out and offered me help in whatever way they could. Friends rallied around me, donating what food they had left, driving me places to store things and to stock up on essentials. 

Caring for each other can look different in times like these. It doesn’t just have to take the form of big gestures like offering a whole house to someone that needs it. It can be things like checking in with friends and family to make sure they are okay. It can be as easy as staying connected and staying inside. 

Take care of yourself and the people around you. We’ll get through this together.