Can They Get A Free Ride?

    Andrew Oh/Guardian

    After a year of paying rent without a lease agreement, the student-run co-operatives at UCSD — the Che Cafe Collective, the UCSD Food Co-operative, Groundwork Books and the UCSD General Store Co-operative — will meet with officials from University Centers on April 16 to request a complete alleviation of rent responsibilities.

    According to Andrew Rubens, a member of the G-Store, the co-ops plan to request rent-free spaces because they consider themselves to be communities — not businesses with the goal of generating profits.

    “A business should pay rent because they’re making money, but our purpose is to educate and promote a climate of awareness and higher learning for students,” Rubens said. “Within that context, is it is absurd to ask a nonprofit — whose entire goal and existence is to benefit students, and which is made up of students — to pay the same rent as another business would.”

    The former lease agreement, from 2006, applies to all the co-ops, but each one calculates its rent based on square footage. Based on that evaluation, the monthly rent has been $1,450.97 for the G-Store, $521.70 for the Food Co-op, $84.00 for the Che Cafe and $788.55 for Groundwork Books.

    Food Co-op core member Sarah Latoski said that, because the mortgages for the co-op buildings have been paid off, co-ops shouldn’t have to pay rent apart from utilities and insurance.

    “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to be paying some sort of nominal fee for monthly maintenance, but I don’t think we should be paying rent, because it’s just profit for the university,” Latoski said.

    The space agreement between the university and the co-ops is normally renegotiated every two years. When the agreement was revisited in the 2008-09 school year, however, the co-ops refused to sign an amendment to the contract that would have clarified the property lines of Groundwork and the G-Store.

    Though Latoski said the amendment was largely inconsequential, co-op members refused to sign the revised contract in order to make a statement about rent prices at the time. They were not aware that not signing the proposal would void the lease.

    “We collectively decided in the [co-op] union to not sign the amendment, to make a gesture to the university that we aren’t happy with the lease agreement,” Latoski said.

    In response, the University Centers Advisory Board reverted the agreement with the co-ops to a month-to-month rental plan. While long-term leases require a landlord to provide just cause before an eviction can be carried out, paying rent on such a short-term basis gives the university greater control over the space.

    “The month-to-month plan puts us in a vulnerable position with the university because at any point, they can give us an eviction notice,” Latoski said.

    The co-ops are now looking to negotiate an agreement with University Centers that would either significantly reduce their rent or eliminate it entirely. According to Director of University Centers Paul Terzino, this is not the first time the co-ops have requested such a reduction.

    “They’ve made a similar request to reduce rent in the past, and every time they submit a request, I ask to see their financial statements to get an understanding of how well they’re doing, how well the stores are doing — and I have not received that,” Terzino said.

    Terzino added that if the co-ops do not bring financial statements to Friday’s meeting, no negotiation of rent prices will take place.

    According to Latoski, the absence of financial statements is due to the co-ops’ communication problems with accountants hired from outside the university, as well as a computer failure that erased all accounting records at the Food Co-op last quarter.

    “I wasn’t planning on [bringing financial statements],” Latoski said.

    Although Terzino said he is open to reducing rent for the co-ops, he said that eliminating payments entirely is unlikely due to the financial woes currently weighing on University Centers.

    According to Terzino, around 65 percent of the department’s funding come from student fees, while the rest is derived from rent or retail — UCAB oversees both the old Student Center and Price Center, so part of its revenue comes from enterprises like the UCSD Bookstore and the UCSD Bike Shop. Eliminating one of those sources entirely could have a negative effect on University Center’s functions, which are already strained.

    Terzino added that learning to balance a budget — including rent — is part of running a student business.

    According to Latoski, however, the co-ops have seen a dramatic decrease in revenue since the expansion of Price Center and the renovations that took place in the Student Center in 2005. The Food Co-op and the Che Cafe have already eliminated paid positions to become entirely volunteer-based, and are still unable to sustain themselves at current rent prices.

    “We have been paying rent,” Latoski said. “What we’ve realized, though, is that — through paying rent — we are not able to financially support ourselves as we’re able to without the rent there. I agree it’s a part of the learning process, but what we’ve learned is that we can’t do it.”

    Rubens said that some co-ops’ daily net values dropped from about $1,000 a day to $200 a day during the 2005 renovations. Remodeling efforts, for example, shut down some co-ops for days, and electrical and plumbing re-wiring temporarily blocked access to the Food Co-op’s kitchen.

    “Two years of us being invisible to the student eye — that was a whole generation of students who didn’t ever know about us,” Latoski said. “There are students who come in here now and they’re in their fourth year, and they’re like, ‘This is the first time I’ve been here because I’ve never walked through the old Student Center.’”

    Determining whether the co-ops are financially solvent is the responsibility of the A.S. Council and the Graduate Student Association, according to the 2006 space agreement. Before the newly drafted agreement can go before UCAB for approval, the A.S. council and the GSA have to certify that the co-ops are beneficial to the student body by verifying that they are financially sound, maintain quality of service and products, and are allowing students input in co-op managing.

    GSA President Alex James said he is not concerned with the co-ops’ ability to meet those terms.

    “[If they are not financially solvent] we’ll have to come to different terms in their agreement,” James said. “I don’t know any reason why anyone would have concern for lack of solvency. I wouldn’t worry about the co-ops being closed or anything.”

    A.S. President Utsav Gupta said the council will play a mediating role between the co-ops and UCAB, should conflict arise.

    “I don’t see it as necessarily certifying,” Gupta said. “I think all we do is agree to mediate any concerns between University Centers and the co-operatives. I don’t think we’d ever be in a position of not signing off on the co-ops.”

    The co-op leases will be discussed on Friday, when the union members meet with Terzino, a second UCAB representative, Gupta and James.

    Additional reporting by Hayley Bisceglia-Martin.

    Readers can contact Sarah Smith at [email protected].

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