Hundreds of people living in Upper Manhattan's International House have been scrambling to find last minute housing after being told to move out within eight days as a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 and a fellow resident died.
Residents of International House South -- a dormitory-style housing offering near Columbia University -- got an email last Thursday from administrators stating that a staff member in the residence had tested positive for coronavirus and residents needed to be out by the following Friday. Late Saturday, tenants got another email saying one of the residents had died from COVID-19 complications.
The news and related move-out order sent residents -- many of whom are international -- into a desperate rush to find alternate accomodation. Many of the residents are students at nearby Columbia University.
One Columbia student who spoke with NBC 4 Tuesday on condition of anonymity said fellow residents were stressed and in shock. "Within 30 minutes of receiving the email, all the residents on my floor were frantically throwing away a lot of their belongings. Luggage, mini refrigerators, books, and furniture lined the entire hall. The recycling and trash bins were overflowing with barely used items such as clothing, stockpiled food, cleaners, and school supplies."
The resident said they stayed up all night packing to move, and then dropped their belongings at a friend's house in the Bronx. They then caught a last-minute flight to Texas to self-quarantine. Information on assistance from International House was initially sparse.
"I attempted to speak to I-House administration in person, but all the offices were closed, with the blinds drawn. The only staff present at the main entrance, were new, and they did not have much information beyond handing out express move out forms in an envelope for us to place our two room cards and mailroom key."
The North Building has remained open and some residents remain there, International House said. Its website says it is home to about 700 people from more than 100 countries. The impressive public spaces of International House were once used as a set for the television series Gossip Girl, about a group of privileged high school students living on New York's Upper East Side.
Another student who also asked to remain anonymous said they searched for alternate accomodations in New York, but decided to move back to their home state.
The students were not told the identity of the staff member who was COVID-19 positive, nor the identity of the resident who had died. "Today we received another email stating that the identity of the deceased individual could not be shared because of HIPPA laws. The residents have been checking in on each other to try to determine which one of our peers is missing, and we are all worried about the people we haven't heard back from."
In an email, International House said the deceased resident's family had asked it not to reveal the person's identity to fellow students. "We will be providing more information about this tragic event when we are able to and will honor and commemorate this individual in an appropriate way at a later date."
It said it was waiving financial penalties and refunding used room and dining fees to assist residents with the last-minute move, as well as trying to provide residents with alternate housing and working with other organizations to identify other housing options.
"We have negotiated a very low hotel rate for short-term or long-term stays at off-site lodging, and are making connections with International House alumni who are identifying other short-term lease options."
The 500 rooms at International House South are rented for between $1,203 and $1,735 per month.