Housing costs for incoming graduate students are expected to increase for the 2021–2022 academic year. Announced in mid-March by Housing Dining Hospitality, rents will rise an average of 35 percent –– but can surge as high as 85 percent –– from the previous year for graduate housing neighborhoods. HDH initially planned to impose a “one-time rate adjustment” for nearly all graduate student residents but has since decided to increase rent solely for incoming students.
The announcement received widespread backlash from not only graduate students but also from the UC San Diego Academic Senate, the United Auto Workers Union Local 2865, and the UCSD Faculty Association. In opposition to the rate adjustment, UAW organized a demonstration on Friday, March 19 to protest and call on HDH and the university to freeze the rent increase. As of April 3, over 2,300 students and faculty have signed onto the union petition. Additionally, many graduate students participated in a rent strike on April 1 to voice their disapproval.
While HDH’s decision will not affect current graduate students, it will make attending UCSD much more expensive for future prospective students and may cause some to incur even more debt to pay for academic expenses. Students and organizations expressed dissatisfaction with the decision to increase the rent unilaterally and the lack of prior discussion with affected parties.
“There’s been no communication and no transparency. I’m not even sure who will even advocate for me. I’ve emailed student affairs and they just forward my email back to graduate housing,” third-year Chemistry Ph.D. student Liana Alves said to The UCSD Guardian. “For example, my one bedroom is supposed to be $2000 [per month] and my stipend in the mail is $2100 [per month]. So that gives me $100 to eat, pay car insurance, and so on. It’s just blatantly not affordable.”
The university suggests that students who are burdened by the rent increase should consider double room occupancy. However, with the ongoing pandemic, limited room space, and pre-existing single-occupancy furniture, this option is not viable for many students. UCSD also claims that it cannot provide subsidies specifically for on-campus rent due to equity concerns that the same funding would not be provided to off-campus students. Instead, the university donated $400,000 to the UCSD Basic Needs Hub and provided other financial support mechanisms to help all students –– undergraduate and graduate students alike –– with food insecurity and housing resources.
Moreover, UCSD states that it cannot help with HDH’s deficit because it is considered a “self-supporting auxiliary enterprise.” This means that funding garnered through rent and other HDH services directly go towards paying the enterprise’s employees and building mortgages. With an expected loss of $46 million from 2019–2021, HDH Graduate and Family Housing decided to recuperate losses through the rent increase.
“While the one-time rate adjustment will increase rental rates, on-campus rental rates will continue to be more favorable than the local rental market,” Associate Director of University Communications Leslie Sepuka said to The UCSD Guardian in an email. “UC San Diego’s campus housing prices also remain below the UC average, despite having an inventory that is much larger and much newer.”
Despite having built new graduate housing in recent years –– Mesa Nueva, Nuevo East, and Nuevo West –– the rent increase plan would make many students who work for the university further rent burdened, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Even prior to the plan, graduate teaching assistants and student researchers were paying north of 45 and 33 percent of their income for housing, respectively. Graduate student pay only increased by 13 percent in the last 4 years while the cost of graduate housing increased by 52 percent in the same period.
The decision to increase rent only exacerbates long-standing tension between students and HDH about campus housing affordability. In March 2020, similar protests occurred throughout the University of California system, demanding that it have a cost of living adjustment to graduate student rents. Protests then and now echo similar sentiments of housing being too expensive and becoming an overwhelming burden to pay.
“The university pushes this model that graduate students should be seen as students primarily, but our daily lived experience is that we are seen as workers –– instructors, assistants, and researchers,” Sociology Ph.D. candidate Catherine Crowder said to The UCSD Guardian. “I think there is a structural disjuncture between how the university classifies graduate students and what the university asks of them. And I think that that conflict in expectation combined with the incredible cost of living makes graduate school an increasingly unfeasible financial arrangement for many talented people. The move for COLA is a part of that, and the rent strike is a part of that.”
While the university will exempt the rate adjustment for current students and those admitted during or prior to Fall 2020, it will proceed with increasing rent for incoming graduate students who start their contract after October 2021. Those exempted can expect to see an annual 3-percent rent increase as usual.
With the rent strike starting on Apr. 1, some graduate students have begun withholding their monthly payment to put pressure on HDH and the university. Approximately 50 of these rent strikers gathered on Apr. 5 at Mandeville Auditorium to express their dissatisfaction and to submit letters to the administration.
“I don’t think [the exemption] matters at all in the conversation around justice and equity,” Crowder said. “To suggest that people who are already here need affordable housing but people in the future do not is effectively saying that [UCSD] is okay with stratifying access to higher education. They are fine with a future where the only people who can conceivably dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge are the people who have enough wealth to self-finance their graduate studies.”
The university has made no changes to their planned rent increase since their initial concession. While the UAW reached out to HDH and UCSD administration to discuss scrapping rent plans, neither has agreed to open negotiations.
Photo courtesy of u/Minivaka on the r/UCSD Reddit page.