The student who lives in a van

May 15, 2019, 12:04 a.m.

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The Daily is interested in hearing about graduate students’ experiences with affordability at Stanford. If you’d like to share your story, please contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’ The student “Blake” is identified by a pseudonym because they feared legal issues could arise from having provided an address in legal documents at which they do not reside.

When vacation season rolls around for residents of Atherton — the neighborhood that currently holds the top spot on Forbes’ ranking of America’s most expensive zip codes — someone needs to watch their pets. Sometimes, well-heeled homeowners call on Blake, a third-year international engineering student, whose answer to high housing prices is to live in a van.

“It’s rather convenient,” they said. “It seems to be a sort of win-win that’s that’s a result of this ecosystem.”

The million-dollar mansions and Tesla-lined streets offer a change of scenery from Blake’s usual accommodations: a seven-seater van with a solar panel, a few small appliances and a makeshift sink.

“It’s small for sure,” Blake said of their accommodations. “There’s no room to walk around, and I don’t stand up straight in it.”

But Blake, who holds out for campus restrooms or uses a bottle or camping bags for bodily functions, describes their lodging as part-choice. The gross amount of their stipend exceeds the cost of on-campus housing. But instead of paying rates set by Residential & Dining Enterprises or the Bay Area, and with a work schedule that often has Blake returning to their van in the early hours of the morning, Blake says their money is better spent on activities that they enjoy doing.

“I actually spend some of my money doing things keep me happy, and that rejuvenate me after the grinder that can be grad school,” they said, describing music lessons and giving presents to loved ones on special occasions.

“I don’t perceive myself as being broke,” they said later. “I mean, I’m very aware that if I paid for housing, I would be.”

Blake, who lived in some of the cheapest on-campus housing available near the start of their studies at Stanford, wasn’t enthusiastic about it. They criticized the expectation that adult graduate students share a room as unrealistic.

“I’m, at the time, 26, 27,” they said. “Is sharing a room the only way of doing this semi-affordably? The last time I shared a room, I was in high school.”

Blake keeps their van off campus, parking usually on El Camino or other nearby roads, an moving around weekly to avoid the threat of towing by Palo Alto police. Section 3.5.5 of Stanford’s Traffic and Parking Code prohibits sleeping in vehicles. East Palo Alto, in contrast, just announced a one-year pilot program through which residents of RVs can park overnight in a space guarded by city security guards and with access to showers, restrooms and laundry facilities.

Discussion about the high costs of housing come in the midst of controversy about the University’s application for a renewed General Use Permit (GUP). Stanford’s proposal includes the construction of more than two million square feet of academic space, as many as 3,150 on-campus housing units or beds and estimated contributions of $56 million for regional affordable housing projects.

The Palo Alto City Council, meanwhile, has requested that Stanford provide as much as $82.4 million to the city’s affordable housing fund. On May 2, Santa Clara County filed a motion to dismiss Stanford’s 2018 lawsuit alleging that the University is being unfairly “targeted” by an ordinance that would require 16 percent of its housing units to be made available at affordable rates.

In a May 9 letter to the Santa Clara County Planning Commission, Stanford asked for a delay in more hearings about GUP.

A pentalingual scholar who’s worked or studied on three continents, Blake has also accumulated some savings from previous employment, when they earned more than they do now. (Blake called it a “rude shock” to see their first stipend payment after more gainful jobs.)

But the reserve funds, they said, are for their mom, who suffers from impaired vision — or for if “shit hits the fan,” they said.

Blake said suggestions from administrators they’ve approached about their problem often involve taking on debt. But Blake, who is considering doing humanitarian work in less-developed parts of the word after graduation, considers taking on large amounts of debt unwise; it would mean shooting themselves in the foot.

Blake emphasizes the mental health dimensions of affordability issues. Blake says their outlets keep them “happy and sane,” describing room in their budget as a “buffer against the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.” Blake also said they’ve unsuccessfully tried to initiate conversations with their advisor about overwork.

“I also told her I was burned out,” they said. “And then she said, ‘When is your draft going to be ready?’”

Blake described climbing housing prices as part of an onslaught of rising costs of living.

“What I find actually particularly egregious,” they said, “is that things at Stanford rise higher than the rates that stipends rise. That is the problem.” Blake described their own experience with the rising cost of music lessons. Next year’s dependent healthcare costs will be roughly 80 percent higher than those of the 2013-14 academic year.

Blake, who regularly picks food from campus trees or takes advantage of free food available at meetings and events, said their stipend was “enough to keep you alive — well, if you’re a single student and you have no other obligations, to family or to siblings.”

Others’ reception of their living arrangement, Blake said, has been mixed.

A co-worker, Blake said, told them: “To be perfectly honest, if someone like you parked outside my house I would call the cops immediately and hound them until they got rid of you — because we don’t know where people like you come from. And so we don’t want people like you near our children or in our parks; it’s just not safe. And people like you just shit on our lawns.”

And at an affordability town hall hosted in November by the Graduate Student Council, Blake asked Provost Persis Drell about their possible future circumstances: If Palo Alto follows cities like Berkeley in adopting measures that effectively prohibit sleeping in vehicles — with Stanford itself having already done so — would the University sell a permit that would allow affiliates to sleep in vehicles on campus? Drell’s response at the town hall, they said, was non-committal.

In an email to The Daily, Drell wrote that she could not “speculate on future zoning laws or how the University would respond.”

“In general, affordability for our campus community is a high priority for the university, and for me personally,” she added, “and we are looking intensively at the options to address the needs of the many different parts of our community.”

The Daily is interested in hearing about graduate students’ experiences with affordability at Stanford. If you’d like to share your story, please contact us.

Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’

Charlie Curnin '22 is the editor-in-chief of The Stanford Daily. Contact him at eic 'at'

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