Before the pandemic, I’d lived in Enchanted Broccoli Forest (EBF). EBF is a co-op, and I quickly grew accustomed to cooking and cleaning for myself. Living in the house, I wondered why co-ops at Stanford are considered “alternative communities” for “edgy” folk. Ultimately, the primary difference between co-ops and “mainstream” self-ops is that the residents clean the house and cook themselves. At most other colleges, by your second or third year, you’d be looking at moving off campus, probably renting a house with friends. And guess what? You’d have to cook and clean it yourself.
Walking to class on a cold, winter quarter morning, I went down the hill from EBF, toward the-house-formerly-known-as-Kappa-Alpha. It was still filled with frat boys who had, as of yet, faced no consequences for their de-housing, besides the replacement of their KA sign with “664 Lomita.” As I walked by, I saw an older Black woman exiting the back of the house, bent over at the waist, carrying two very heavy-looking trash bags. I was overwhelmed by the image. Here was a house full of wealthy, able fraternity men in their 20s, full-grown adults, and they couldn’t even take out their own trash?
Furthermore, if Stanford was going to let them remain in a veritable mansion, which it had already determined they didn’t deserve, why were they also privileged with a private chef and cleaning staff?
I’m not suggesting, by any means, that these employees should have been let go. The problem isn’t that Kappa Alpha has a chef and maids. The problem is the entire system.
When selecting a college, I considered only schools that offered four guaranteed years of housing. I was terrified of renting. Who even knows how to enter a lease? What I didn’t realize is that those four guaranteed years are more of a curse than a blessing. I also didn’t realize that Stanford’s four years of guaranteed housing are more like four years of mandatory housing. Stanford’s housing guarantee has ensured that, unlike other college towns, there is a near-complete lack of student housing in the surrounding community, making living off campus an extreme challenge.
Take Cal, for example. Berkeley has a similar cost of living to Palo Alto. Cal does not guarantee housing — not for freshman, not at all. They have a number of residence halls, but given the lack of a guarantee, all students must eventually seek off-campus housing. Consequently, the University of California, Berkeley, provides a service called CalRentals, a platform that connects Berkeley students with housing that meets their budget, location and space needs. It also gives information on renting safely and what rights tenants have. Furthermore, because of the lack of campus housing, there is a plethora of low-cost, privately owned, student-oriented housing in nearby areas. Berkeley students thus have the learning opportunity that is living off campus; they learn to sign a lease, co-exist with roommates without a resident assistant (RA) and manage a home without university supervision.
So, why is Stanford’s housing guarantee a problem? We don’t have to find apartments. This should be good, right?
Wrong. The fear I had of learning to rent shouldn’t have driven me away from renting, but rather toward it. College is where you’re supposed to learn how to find an apartment, sign a lease, deal with roommates without an RA, grocery shop for a whole house, clean a bathroom and just be an adult. Instead, most Stanford undergraduates live in residences where they don’t cook, clean or grocery shop, and finding housing is handled by the draw and the board cost, which Stanford has absolute authority to determine, is slapped on their student bill.
Notably, the cost of living on campus, in a dorm, is higher than renting a room in Palo Alto. If you take the price of living in a dorm for one quarter ($3,198) and divide it by 10 weeks, you get a weekly rent, which, multiplied by four, comes out to $1,279. This is your monthly, on-campus rent. This is approximately equivalent to the cost of renting a room in a house in Palo Alto. But when you rent a room off campus, you get it all to yourself. If you wanted to have a roommate, you would split that rent. Most dorm spots at Stanford, however, are in doubles, triples, quads and in some cases, quints. Regardless, R&DE still collects that $1,279 from all residents of the room. This cost, importantly, does not account for the meal plan that Stanford forces you to have, which, at $928 per month, is far more expensive than cooking for yourself.
So what do we lose? I sent out a “practical knowledge poll” to garner information about what my fellow undergraduates knew about “adulting.” As of now, it has 30 responses, primarily upperclassmen. All have lived in a traditional dorm, and 18 of them — more than half — have lived in a co-op or an apartment. Although most respondents have lived in a space that requires a great degree of independence, many still have little practical knowledge.
Eighteen respondents had never lived with roommates without an RA or other authority figure to mediate issues. Eighteen of them have never rented a space themselves. Twenty of them said they would not know how to find an apartment to rent. Twenty-six people said that they would not know how to enter into a rental contract and ensure that they were not being taken advantage of. Only two people knew how to enter into such a contract. Twenty-six people also said that they did not know what any of their rights are as a tenant, and only two claimed that they knew. Six respondents said that they literally never cook for themselves. Ten people have never done grocery shopping for themselves, and nine don’t know how long food lasts in the fridge.
Remember, these results are skewed. Most respondents have actually lived independently in some way. Many of them know how to clean a bathroom and plunge a toilet (although two and seven do not, respectively). One could extrapolate that surveying the greater Stanford population would result in even more concerning results. Most Stanford students never live in an apartment or co-op; dorms and self-ops represent the vast majority of campus housing options.
Need proof? There are 5,035 spots for undergraduate housing on campus. A whopping 3,272 of them (65%) are in residence halls. There are 961 spots (19%) in self-ops. So 84% of campus housing spots are in residences that provide cooking and cleaning services. These students are not learning to cook or clean; everything is done for them.
Worse, spots in more independent residences are notoriously rare. It is just about impossible to draw into Mirrielees. There are only 243 spots, or 5% of the total spaces on campus. Most (read: all) of these spots are reserved, appropriately, for substance-free students or those with disability accommodations. The 2018 and 2019 historical draw statistics show that no one could draw into Mirrielees, regardless of gender or group size.
Co-ops aren’t easy to get into either. There are only 315 spots (6%). Fifty percent of these spots are open to the traditional housing draw. The other 50% are reserved for pre-assignment, and, to maintain community continuity, co-ops usually (rightfully) pre-assign existing residents. Thus, many residents continue to remain in the house, reducing the number of other students who can experience independent living.
Some students may want to live in Suites, where they clean their own common area, but are provided with meals and bathroom cleaning services. Suites, too, is difficult to get into. Only 244 students (5%) can live in Suites. Additionally, not all of these spots are open to the draw; one Suite, Outdoor House, has a selective pre-assignment process like co-ops and theme houses.
It isn’t only practical education that Stanford undergraduates miss out on. As university boarders, they also have fewer rights, poorer quality accommodations and higher costs. Santa Clara County excludes universities from having to allot tenants’ rights. These tenants’ rights are really, really important. As a renter, you can’t even sign them away in a lease, and if a landlord were to violate them, he would likely face great legal trouble. But Stanford has the ability to disregard them without consequence. So what are these rights? Should they matter to you?
Yes, especially during this pandemic. In California, a landlord must give written notice at least thirty days before evicting a tenant. The three days we were given to evacuate due to COVID-19? That should be illegal, and is never allowed in “real world” renting. Furthermore, did Stanford lock you out of your residence? Under landlord-tenant law, tenants cannot be locked out until you have gone to court and the sheriff has posted a notice to vacate on your door.
Tenants also have a right to privacy. Their landlord cannot enter their residence except under limited circumstances and with prior notice. They can enter only to make necessary repairs, show the room to other potential tenants, do a pre-move out inspection or if it’s an emergency. They cannot enter to search your room
Tenants also have, quite importantly, the “right to quiet enjoyment.” This has a number of consequences, one being that landlords cannot restrict tenants from having a reasonable number of guests. But students on campus have been told that if we invite a guest into our residence, we will be immediately removed from campus and investigated by the Office of Community Standards for violating the Fundamental Standard.
It is true that shelter-in-place regulations are a matter of law, and Palo Alto Police and Stanford police can certainly cite you for having a gathering, refusing to wear a mask or not meeting the six-feet-of-distance requirement. Stanford, however, has taken it upon itself to enforce these rules, threatening to remove at-risk students from campus housing if they break them. Stanford administrators have claimed, in multiple emails, that they are just “following county guidelines,” but they are doing this by choice. They are not compelled to ban guests or remove students from housing.
Tenants also have the right to rent abatement. This means that when a space is deemed uninhabitable (perhaps when you’ve been removed due to COVID?), the landlord must provide a refund for the time in which the tenant could not use their residence. Did you get a refund for the winter housing you lost? Furthermore, when a unit is deemed uninhabitable, landlords are required to pay for the tenant to live elsewhere during that time.
Why would Stanford refuse to offer tenants’ rights to students, rights that the state of California has determined renters deserve? Perhaps because it is highly profitable and grants them inordinate authority. Stanford housing is operated by Residential and Dining Enterprises (R&DE). They stand to profit directly from being able to evict you without notice or cause, refusing to prorate your winter bill, and not having to put you up in a hotel when they kick you out. Stanford also benefits by having enormous authority over you. Because nearly all students live on campus, Stanford can police their behavior to a high authority, searching their rooms and fining them for contraband (like “drug paraphernalia” and … candles), and preventing them from holding events of which the University disapproves. In this way, the University leverages your freedom to maintain their public image. For most schools, which have off-campus housing, this isn’t the case — this degree of authority is atypical and unacceptable.
Ultimately, you aren’t learning important life skills, you don’t have tenants’ rights, you have limited freedom and you’re paying more for the privilege. To top it all off, the for-profit R&DE benefits financially for refusing tenants’ rights.
A previous version of this article suggested that Suites residents clean their own bathrooms. In fact, they only clean their own rooms and shared common space. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Rachel D’Agui at rdagui ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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