Grad life: When your employer is also your landlord

May 7, 2020, 8:05 p.m.

This is the second in a series of op-eds by the Stanford Solidarity Network detailing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on graduate students. Read the first here.

There was only one mention of graduate students in Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s most recent update on “Our Next Steps” — that administrators “have delayed the housing lottery until we have more visibility into how the county shelter-in-place orders will evolve.” If we’re lucky, all grad students will have a place to live during the upcoming school year. Maybe.

This week’s op-ed will take a closer look at one of the biggest financial challenges that graduate students face and explain how the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating the already difficult housing situation. We highlight testimonies from graduate students that reflect the dire need for more affordable housing support from Stanford. 

The costs of living at Stanford

Housing is one of the major sources of anxiety for graduate students. It is expensive: For many, rent can eat up almost half of every paycheck. Graduate students who travel during the summer for research opportunities are locked into their housing contracts and forced to find a subletter — and to accept the losses when they can’t find one. Upon the opening of the new Escondido Village Graduate Residences complex originally planned for this summer, rent is slated to increase 16% across all graduate housing options for the 2020-21 school year, while the availability of “affordable housing” (that is, housing that costs less than 30% of income) will decrease by 80%. We did this math during simpler times when we were concerned about affording housing without the threat of a global pandemic. You can see the full breakdown here.

Despite Stanford’s purported concerns about affordability and the formation of the Affordability Task Force, the amount of graduate housing that costs less than 40% of income will also decrease by 32% from the previous year, while the availability of housing costing 40-60% of income is set to increase by 119%. As a point of reference, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has found that those who pay more than 30% of their income on housing are considered cost-burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. That is the reality for almost every graduate student living in University housing on a graduate stipend while teaching classes, conducting research and trying to make ends meet in the Bay Area. 

When we circulated the University-wide graduate student petition calling on the administration to take steps to protect the most vulnerable members of the graduate student community and to respond to the pandemic’s looming long-term threats to graduate students, we asked for signatories to anonymously share personal stories of how the crisis has impacted their lives. We received almost 30 pages of testimonies. They are all unique, yet the situations they recount sound familiar.

I won’t have summer funding and will have to deplete my personal savings to stay in the Bay. I have nowhere else to go as my closest family is immuno-compromised. My research progress is delayed because my partners in my study community are not holding the meetings where I virtually share progress on my work. I am deeply anxious and scared.

Multiplying concerns: COVID-19 x campus housing 

The struggle to afford to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford is well-documented. When most of one’s monthly income goes to rent, money to cover unforeseen expenses quickly evaporates. The high prices of graduate housing combined with the high cost of dependent health care coverage is a significant burden for students with spouses and families. We’ve spent over a year advocating for more equitable health care options for grad student families, and the COVID-19 crisis has multiplied unexpected costs, such as materials needed to continue researching and teaching remotely, book purchases due to library closures, and extra supplies for caring for and teaching children. Expecting these “unexpected” expenses is quickly becoming the new norm for grad students — but the limited budget of our University stipends and assistantships offers little flexibility to make adjustments. 

Our two standard options when faced with emergency expenses are to either 1) take on the costs ourselves up-front and then hope that some funding such as the Emergency Grant-In-Aid might reimburse us for it, or 2) request a cash advance on our salaries. The first option carries the risk of being denied a request after having spent the money. The description of what the grant covers is vague, and there is little recourse when a funding request is denied. The second option amounts to little more than kicking the can down the road for when our bank accounts will run dry. While a cash advance might work effectively to cover routine cash flow problems, such as paying for flights and lodging to attend a conference when it will be reimbursed months later, COVID-19-related expenses threaten to quickly exhaust any reserves of savings we might have. Of course, some grad students have a financial safety net (whether independent savings, support from family, a working spouse), which is the invisible dividing line that runs through the entire graduate community. Those without one — the most vulnerable of us — are now even more exposed to financial risk.

[The pandemic] has taken the biggest toll on me financially because I went to the east coast to be with my family during this time (and also to escape the hotbed of the virus in California). However, it is greatly distressing that I am still paying an enormous portion of my stipend in rent right now since I can not get my stuff out of my apartment in Stanford. Ideally, I would end my housing contract, but I don’t know what would happen with all of my things. And, I don’t want to lose priority when returning to campus (hopefully in the fall).

Housed or homeless — unknowns abound

In a University-wide graduate student petition, graduate students requested relief from the economic hardships of housing costs on campus and in the surrounding area. Here are some of the more pressing concerns regarding housing that Stanford has not yet addressed: 

  • The University stated that students who moved out of campus housing by March 30 would be able to retain housing priority. Will all students leaving after that date lose their priority? Does this force students to retain their housing contracts through the summer?
  • Most Ph.D. programs offer a smaller stipend during the summer because students spend the summer elsewhere and sublet their campus apartments. It will not be possible to do this over the summer due to the pandemic. How are students expected to make ends meet when locked into expensive housing contracts?
  • Stanford asks students who require financial assistance with moving costs to take on more debt via a Graduate Housing Loan of up to $6,000 to cover moving expenses, security deposits and first-month rent. Students must pay back this loan six months after their enrollment ends at a 5% interest rate.  
  • For years, Stanford has planned to move over 2,000 grad students from off-campus subsidized housing to the Escondido Village Graduate Residences. Before the pandemic, these moves were to happen in summer 2020. Now that the housing lottery has been delayed, students in off-campus housing are left in limbo. Will students have to move during the fall while taking classes and teaching? And for students who have left their off-campus apartments due to COVID-19 affordability concerns, to where will they move back? Planning for the financial and emotional drain of moving is impossible.

I am in a precarious situation where I am being forced to move from off-campus subsidized housing to on-campus housing in September. This will not only bring a likely 50-80% increase in rent, but has also left me in a position where I am unsure how to proceed with moving apartments and when I will be able to see my loved ones again.

Weathering the crisis: a precarious calculus 

Though our academic departments and the housing office are worlds apart within the fractured University structure, to us our employer and our landlord are one and the same. The University divides its financial considerations for graduate students into two separate markets. On one hand is the labor market for graduate students, and on the other is the Bay Area housing market. Though the salary and rent rates may seem reasonable when considered independently, the reality is this: Stanford sets our yearly income, as well as the price of our most costly monthly expense (rent), and trying to get by on the little that remains after rent and taxes is a difficult juggling act. 

With the level of wealth that Stanford enjoys, we should aim to do better than a situation in which financially well-off graduate students come pre-packaged with the means to succeed, while those in more difficult circumstances face substantial financial hardship and its effects on their research and degree progress. Compounding existing demands on our energy and finances, COVID-19 will have dire consequences for graduate students, though many of these consequences won’t be realized until later on. 

For this reason, we seek at this juncture a clear articulation of support from Stanford: that all grad students will be funded through the ongoing crisis this summer, and that the most existential issues — housing and health insurance — be directly addressed as the situation continues to develop and summer quarter, only six weeks away, draws nearer. 

Contact Jason Beckman at jason ‘dot’ beckman ‘at’ and Anna Toledano at toledano ‘at’

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