UCSD Students, Faculty Push Back Against Steep Rent Hikes

Education

UCSD Students, Faculty Push Back Against Steep Rent Hikes

Rent for UC San Diego graduate and professional students who live in campus housing will increase by hundreds of dollars – and in some cases nearly double – starting this summer. The university’s housing department said the hike is needed to offset ongoing debts.

UC San Diego graduate students protest upcoming rent hikes for campus housing. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Rent for UC San Diego graduate and professional students who live in campus housing will increase by hundreds of dollars – in some cases nearly double – starting this summer. The university’s housing department said the hike is needed to offset ongoing debts. But graduate student groups are furious, and argue that administrators created a problem where one didn’t previously exist.

Rents will increase on average by 31 percent for new housing contracts starting in July, according to an analysis by graduate students. One type of unit, however, will see an 85 percent jump. On top of that, all graduate students already living on campus will see an annual 3 percent increase to their rent, something they said is overly burdensome and has been increasing by that amount for the past eight years.

The university housing department is in a deficit of $18 million for the 2021 fiscal year, which officials said is a result of recently completed housing projects that were meant to increase availability and shorten the time graduate students wait to get campus housing. Those buildings, Mesa Nueva and Nuevo East and West, opened in 2017 and 2020, respectively.

When the UC regents, the university’s governing board, approved the projects in 2015, the housing department planned to increase rent by under 5 percent each year through 2024-25 academic year. Now the department has suddenly announced much higher rent increases.

At a virtual town hall last week with housing administrators and graduate students, Hemlata Jhaveri, executive director of university’s housing department, said the rent hikes were inevitable. When the Mesa Nueva buildings opened, the housing department decided to keep rents low knowing they would have to later increase them, she said.

“In hindsight, probably the decision should have been to match the expense with the revenue. The decision then was made since it was a new building to start off lower and then ramp up slowly. Of course, we can see that all it has done is created a huge deficit,” Jhaveri said at the meeting.

The highest spike in rent is for UCSD’s Mesa Apartments, a housing complex designed largely for students with young children. The price for a three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment will jump from $1,455 to $2,700 — an 85 percent increase — for new residents this summer. In Mesa Nueva, rent for a one-bedroom, one-bath unit will go up by 70 percent, from $1,227 to $2,109.

UCSD’s housing department is an auxiliary to the university, which means it does not receive federal, state or tuition funding and student rents must cover the cost of mortgages and staff salaries. With the recent “corrections” to rents and the 3 percent annual increase, the housing department should be able to pay off its debt by 2031, Jhaveri said.

But graduate students and faculty said the deficit is the fault of the university’s poor financial decision-making. They said the initial rental rates for Mesa Nueva are just one piece of the story behind the housing department’s deficit.

Graduate students and faculty allege that the university’s new housing projects were unsustainable from the beginning. They claim the university used excess reserves from the housing department as a down payment for construction of two of the three new complexes and passed the long-term debt onto students.

Fernando Domínguez, an associate professor at UCSD, said the rent spikes on graduate students are due to “reckless planning and budgeting” by the university.

“They’re trying to shift the burden of that responsibility to the graduate students through an immoral increase in rent in the midst of a pandemic,” Domínguez said.

Now, student rents must cover the housing department’s debt in addition to the operating costs of a growing number of campus housing complexes. Meanwhile, in November, UCSD committed an additional $34 million in housing department reserves for another new campus housing project.

“In the name of growth, we are undermining what the university stands for, which is access, equity and social mobility, and by hurting the people we should be caring for,” Dominguez said.

Leslie Sepuka, a spokesperson for UCSD, wrote in an email that the housing department’s reserves were never meant to be a long-term solution to the housing department’s debt.

“HDH has to make annual mortgage payments which include principal and interest. Fixed costs are largely driven by mortgages on residential buildings and HDH front-line staff salaries. The historically low graduate rents have not covered expenses,” Sepuka said.

Over 500 students living in campus housing have pledged to withhold their rent until the university concedes, and a petition started by UAW2865 to freeze rents has more than 2,200 signatures from students and faculty, according to organizers.

UC San Diego graduate students protest upcoming rent hikes for campus housing. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Graduate students already living on campus will not be subject to the largest rent hikes planned for this summer, but the 3 percent increase is still concerning for many who live on limited stipends from the university.

Alli Carlisle is an organizer for the UAW2865 academic workers union and used to live on stipends from the university before becoming an employee for the union this year.

“The university pays us, they know exactly how little they pay us and then they keep hiking up how much they’re charging us for rent and so that margin of how much people have to live on gets smaller and smaller,” Carlisle said.

Student workers unions across the UC have been fighting over the past year for a cost-of-living adjustment, which they say is needed for many graduate students currently living at or below the poverty line. A UC student housing association found that UCSD’s campus rents have increased four times faster than stipends for grad students between 2016 and 2019.

“People are already struggling so much that even these little, little ways the university is sort of nickel-and-diming people is unbearable,” Carlisle said.

UCSD has a waitlist with more than 1,800 graduate students waiting for campus housing to become available. Most students stay on the waitlist for about a year, but some have been waiting as long as three years, according to the university. Students on the waitlist who are not able to get a contract before July will have to pay the new rates.

Nicole Torquato has been living in graduate student housing while she studies in the chemistry and biochemistry department at UCSD. She said she pays $672 for a private room in a shared two-bedroom, one-bathroom unit on campus. Starting this summer, a student signing a new contract for would pay $1,050 for the same room.

Torquato said she lives on a stipend of $2,200 a month, and giving nearly half back to the university for rent just isn’t feasible.

In fact, for many graduate students, the low rents offered at UCSD were a draw. Now, graduate students said they’ve heard from prospective students who turned down admissions offers or reconsidered their offers because of the planned rent increase.

In response to the backlash, UCSD announced an exemption to the new rates for all graduate students admitted in fall 2020 or earlier. Students admitted for fall 2021 and after will pay the new rates.

Others worry the rent increase will hurt UCSD’s ability to recruit diverse talent to its graduate programs, especially students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or other disadvantaged communities. Several departments at UCSD have written to the administration to demand they change course and find new sources of funding for the housing department. The UCSD Faculty Association recently released its own petition against the rent hikes.

“The unwillingness to explore these routes is a political choice made by Chancellor [Pradeep] Khosla, whose actions ultimately reduce access to UCSD and inflict irreparable damage on the well-being of grad students, in order to solve a financial problem created by his Administration,” faculty wrote in the petition.

The housing department maintains the rent hike planned for summer is still 20 percent below market rate, a selling point the department makes to attract students and keep on-campus housing affordable. As evidence, the university pointed to a report produced by an outside real estate research group. It’s gotten mixed reactions.

Graduate students point to a “time consideration” piece in the report, which tacks on a $20 per hour value for every hour students save in commuting by living on campus instead of in other neighborhoods. The consideration increases the value of living on campus.

The report is also from 2019, and students are skeptical that the pandemic hasn’t caused a significant increase in rents across the region over the last year.

Alan Nevin, director of economic research at Xpera, which performed the study, defended its findings.

“Rents in the community have hardly gone up at all now, of course because of COVID, so over the last year the market has been dead flat,” Nevin said.

Nevin said he presented the report to the graduate student association when it came out and answered concerns at that time. He said he had not heard about any further concerns and did not know that UCSD planned to raise rents this summer.

To make up for the rent increases, the housing department has offered students the option to double up in rooms in studios and apartments. Grad students have said this is a cheap way for the university to fulfill its below-market rate selling point while still hiking prices. One official in the housing department acknowledged in the virtual town hall event that they “don’t recommend these spaces be shared because they’re not large enough.”

The Graduate and Professional Student Association is now calling on Khosla to provide financial assistance to the housing department so that rents for students can remain affordable.

“HDH’s hands are tied. They don’t have the money. The chancellor needs to step in and give HDH more money and … explore ways to give more revenue to HDH that don’t require ameliorating their debt on the backs of students,” said Jack Olmstead, the chief of staff for the association.

Olmstead lives in campus housing and is pursuing a doctorate from the university’s medical school. He’ll graduate in 2027, but if he were to start all over now, he said he would not choose UCSD. The cost of campus housing would be too high.

“It’d be prohibitive. I wouldn’t even consider it, and that’s so discouraging for a lot of reasons,” Olmstead said.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article misspelled Alli Carlisle’s name and misidentified her source of income. She’s employed by the student workers union and no longer receives a university stipend.

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