Opinion: Shelter in a pandemic: Stanford housing policies fail FLI and housing-insecure students

July 11, 2020, 2:26 p.m.

Throughout the pandemic, Stanford’s policies have consistently left its most vulnerable students to struggle: students from first-generation and/or low income (FLI) backgrounds, those who are housing-insecure and international students. The university’s recent announcement of 2020-2021 academic year housing policies continues this trend. If Stanford does not change course, FLI students, international students and other housing-insecure individuals will undoubtedly once again be left at the margins, struggling without the proper financial and legal safety nets necessary for equitable access to opportunities for success and excellence at Stanford. We, as members of FLIP (First-Generation and/or Low-Income Partnership) are calling on the university to increase transparency around housing criteria, provide stable on-campus housing for housing-insecure students and increase the flexibility of their policies to accommodate students’ rapidly shifting needs.

In March, Stanford announced the mass evacuation of students from campus for spring quarter, noting one exception: they would provide housing for “a very limited number of studentsthose who have no other option than to be here.” Stanford failed to live up to this promise. In the five days following this announcement, dozens of housing-insecure students found their housing requests denied. Without clear guidelines during the housing application or an immediate appeals process, these students, who needed safe, stable, accessible and affordable places to live, were expected to quickly find themselves somewhere to stay. 

One FLI student, who wishes to remain anonymous, applied to stay on campus in March and struggled with the idea of going home. They knew that they would have to simultaneously manage their coursework, face at-risk family members and live in a homophobic, toxic environment with little social and emotional support — all the while, putting an immense financial burden on their household members. Upon being notified that the university denied their housing request, they found temporary housing at a friend’s home hours away from Stanford’s campus. In their search for housing across California, they struggled for weeks to find a landlord willing to take on a tenant without a credit score, proof of income, or full time employment. They anticipate facing similar difficulty finding housing in the fall. This student is just one of many who are impacted by Stanford’s housing policies.

When Stanford’s opaque policies denied housing for students petitioning with demonstrated health, safety and financial needs, student leaders were forced to step in and fill the gaps. Even as FLIP student leaders were preparing for final exams and being evicted from campus, they created and organized an Emergency Housing Match that ran through mid-March and remained open through spring quarter. The system directly matched these students to free or low cost emergency housing offered by alumni, community volunteers and even other students, matching approximately two-thirds of the 75 students who submitted a need. This does not account for students who found housing through other public, student-made housing needs forms.The ASSU Support Fund, the Columbae COVID-19 Stanford Support Fund and Stanford Mutual Aid also helped students meet emergency needs — with many donations helping pay housing costs for students experiencing housing-insecurity.  

These student-led efforts, while critical for meeting short-term emergency needs, were no substitute for an institutional response. As summer approached, the situation continued to deteriorate. With internships and jobs being cancelled nationwide, many students found themselves struggling to fulfill basic needs — groceries, food or rent — just as housing contracts or temporary leases ended. Others found themselves stuck, unable to return home due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. In spite of this, Stanford maintained a steep price tag of $6,155 for summer housing — an astounding move given both its immense wealth and the precedent set by its peer institutions. Once again, vulnerable students were blindsided by Stanford administration. 

With students in need of summer housing and Stanford again providing little support, FLIP reinstated the Emergency Housing Match, serving an additional 50 students through the summer. Students running Stanford Mutual Aid also responded, raising approximately $15,000 from late June through early July for students’ basic needs. Yet again, the university’s policy forced students into a precarious position, and the onus fell on student leaders and communities to fill in the gaps. Students organized to support 125 fellow students’ housing needs and provide them much needed financial relief. Students, who were facing the effects of the pandemic and economic downturn in their own lives, sacrificed their own time and well-being to make up for Stanford’s stark failure to support and serve its own students.

We fear that the university’s 2020-2021 academic year housing policies will further this trend of students shouldering administrative responsibilities. On June 29th, students were informed by email that Stanford would have “limited housing available for undergraduates of all class years who may need to reside on campus outside of their cohort’s designated quarters.” This promising language echoes that which preceded the turmoil of Marchwhen Stanford’s policies forced its students to organize emergency housing and financial resources for the most vulnerable during final exams and international panic. FLI, housing-insecure and international students are rightly terrified that they will once again be overlooked by Stanford, and again left to fall through the administrative and bureaucratic cracks. 

We understand that there are real challenges to providing housing for students on campus, despite how limitless Stanford’s resources may seem. Stanford will undoubtedly have to make hard decisions about its priorities. But FLI students are also no strangers to scarcity or the sacrifices that come with making difficult decisions. So when Stanford warns that requests for housing by students with special circumstances “may exceed available housing” at the same time that spacious EVGR housing becomes available, it is important to interrogate exactly what parameters Stanford is using to prioritize and assign housing slots. Stanford cannot afford to make the same mistakes going forward. We refuse to believe that the university is unable to do better in meeting the needs of FLI, housing-insecure and international students. 

We call for the following:

  • Transparency in how the university determines students’ housing needs. 
    • The university has consistently failed to specify the metrics by which “special circumstances” are judged, the amount of housing spaces available and how the appeals system functions. 
    • With only 600 characters to justify a request for housing, students are unreasonably expected to explain their complex situations in less than the span of three Tweets.
  • Ensuring students in need are offered affordable, stable and accessible on-campus housing, especially for FLI, international and housing-insecure students.
    • Financial aid available for off-campus housing amounts to a maximum of $5800 per quarter, but students are only eligible for this money during the quarters they are enrolled, forcing students to stretch financial aid across quarters. 
    • All students will face the challenges of finding a place to live, but particularly FLI and/or international students will do so. Housing applications require good credit, a stable income or someone to cosign. Applicants may also have to pay for credit or background checks, security deposits and first and last month’s rent, all on short timelines.
    • First-years and sophomores will face two consecutive quarters off campus. Juniors and seniors, who are not scheduled to be offered on-campus housing until winter quarter, will be left with an even shorter timeline to find an adequate place to live. For students under 18, it will be difficult or even impossible to secure off-campus housing.
  • Accommodations for students’ basic needs as they change beyond the July 12th housing form deadline. 
    • These unpredictable times call for leniency with deadlines. We ask for leniency for students seeking housing even after the current July 12th deadline.
    • We encourage a plan for an ongoing submission and review process, as opposed to a set deadline, because the pandemic continues to cause rapid changes in student’s lives, finances and housing stability. 

The housing security of students is being determined by a series of choices about who deserves to have affordable, safe and secure housing on campus. We demand transparency and clarity. We refuse to let this process move forward without recognition of the compelling challenges that FLI, international and housing-insecure students face with regard to housing stability and conditions for academic progress.

We truly believe that Stanford has the capability to accommodate requests from students in need of on-campus housing. 

FLI, international and housing-insecure students need your help. We know Stanford has ignored their concerns in the past. These issues only grow by the hour, as Sunday’s “special circumstance” application deadline nears. FLIP speaks on behalf of these students because we want them to have the opportunity for a safe environment to continue their education. Stanford, we urge you to listen. 

How can alumni and the broader community support students’ emergency needs?

  • Reach out to administration in Student Affairs, the FLI Office and other university leadership who have connections to the housing process for the upcoming year. Students, who are currently working summer jobs while simultaneously advocating for their peers against the administration, need outside support to hold the university accountable.
  • Support Stanford Mutual Aid. FLIP has worked closely with this group to support students’ housing needs, and Stanford Mutual Aid continues to raise resources to fulfill student’s basic needs, including groceries, utilities, medical expenses and housing costs. 
  • Fulfill direct aid requests on this 1:1 Need Matching Form, a Stanford Mutual Aid project that students use to submit emergency requests. These can be fulfilled by peers, alumni, parents and general community members. Currently, Stanford Mutual Aid estimates they still have requests for $223,000 worth of needs to be met, a number likely to increase as the pandemic continues.
  • Share other resources via this Community Offerings Form. You can offer paid work opportunities, transportation assistance, food, supplies, storage space, child care, services and emotional support. This form is also maintained by Stanford Mutual Aid.
  • Donate any amount to Stanford Mutual Aid at @smuadma via Paypal, Venmo, or CashApp. This fund is managed by a team of student managers and an alumni advisor to make sure that 100% of funds go directly to students in need. If you have questions, you can contact primary student fund manager Will Shan (’22) at [email protected].

This article has been corrected to reflect that housing form deadline is July 12, not June 12. The Daily regrets this error. This article has also been updated to include additional donation links for Stanford Mutual Aid in the provided support resources.

Contact Lizzie Avila at eaavila ‘at’ stanford.edu, Kimberly Batdorf at kbatdorf ‘at’ stanford.edu, Jess Dominick at jess13 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Kevin Longoria at kevinl22 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Ayush Pandit at apandit ‘at’ stanford.edu with questions or concerns.

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