At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with undergraduates scattered across the country and most classes and research moved online, a number of graduate student families moved out of on-campus housing seeking more appealing and affordable residences beyond the Stanford campus.
Now, as Stanford and the surrounding community approach a post-pandemic reality, student couples and families are growing increasingly frustrated with what they see as renewed pressure to move back to campus.
Graduate student discontent with Stanford’s housing accessibility and culture is not new. The graduate student community has struggled to advocate for accessibility in the face of Stanford’s overarching power as a landlord, educator and employer. Coterminal students have also faced affordability concerns and housing insecurity over the past few years.
During the pandemic, however, some students discovered a new option: off-campus housing.
During his third year at Stanford, fourth-year Ph.D. student Gautam Machiraju lived on campus with his fiancé, opting for a studio apartment in Escondido Village. But when he realized that online operations meant he no longer had to be on campus, Machiraju moved more than 100 miles north to Sacramento for his partner’s job. Machiraju recently moved back to the Bay Area in January, settling closer to campus in Oakland.
A number of graduate students living off-campus have relied on Stanford’s Caltrain Go Pass program, which gives graduate students free access to the commuter rail line across all zones. This program was initially reserved for Stanford staff members but was expanded in 2014 to select graduate students.
While there is no official requirement for graduate students to live on campus, Machiraju explained that graduate students are feeling pressure from the University to move back to campus because of a number of factors, including uncertainty surrounding the Caltrain program. Stanford Transportation’s website states that the Caltrain program will be discontinued by the end of 2022. However, according to a recent update from the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, the University plans to use bridge funding toward the Caltrain program to mitigate the impact of the program’s discontinuation.
Having moved away during the pandemic when policies were more relaxed, Machiraju is now frustrated with the lack of clear guidelines regarding whether grad students are expected to move back to campus.
R&DE representative Jocelyn Breeland explained the off-campus graduate housing program was created because of the need for graduate students to have more affordable housing options near campus. Without this program, Stanford had to turn away more than 1,000 students a year who wanted university housing.
The opening of the Escondido Village Graduate Residences has allowed us to provide on-campus housing to many more graduate students who want it,” she explained. But, because of the unusually large undergraduate population, EVGR Building A is being used to house undergraduates.
“This, in addition to the need to leave some residences unoccupied for use as quarantine/isolation space, means that we will likely need to keep some off-campus housing for now,” she added.
The construction of the EVGR complexes greatly exacerbated students’ frustrations with living options on campus. To make space for these new complexes, Stanford tore down existing housing units and eliminated some parking options. Scott Fleming, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Informatics recalled feeling left out of the conversation during the construction of EVGR.
“To me, this is a system in peril,” Fleming said. “Ideally, Hail Mary efforts from students wouldn’t need to happen, because they would have already been included in the planning process upfront.”
After moving off-campus in the summer of 2020, Fleming moved back to University-sponsored housing in September. He currently lives in the Oak Creek apartments, one of Stanford’s off-campus residence options, with his wife and child. He and his family hoped to stay there until he finished his Ph.D. But Fleming was recently informed by Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) that he will not be able to renew his contract at Oak Creek.
“We’ve moved basically every year since we started here,” Fleming said. “Had we known that we would have to move out of Oak Creek, we wouldn’t have applied.”
Fleming originally decided to leave campus when Stanford released a campus compact about the University’s COVID protocols that all residents were required to sign and abide by. Fleming said he felt uncomfortable signing the contract given that it included his young child, who oftentimes isn’t considered a member of the Stanford community. Fleming also felt that Stanford was neglecting resident children by shutting down playgrounds and daycares.
“It poisoned the culture within the Escondido Village community,” Fleming said of the compact.
According to Breeland, R&DE will make decisions regarding the status of off-campus housing for the upcoming year after the lottery deadline passes on May 5, as they have in prior years.
“We may choose to keep some off campus complexes while letting other ones go,” she explained. “The number of graduate students applying for housing, in conjunction with the number of spaces we need to keep offline for quarantine/isolation space, will dictate what off-campus spaces are available for next year.”
Breeland wrote that students and families like Fleming’s currently living in off-campus housing will not be able to renew their contracts. Instead, they can list their current housing as their first choice and, if that housing is kept as an option, they will be placed there.
Diverse housing options for graduate students, Machiraju said, are vital to creating a fulfilling living environment for all students.
“Before [EVGR], with the off-campus units, you could really tailor your housing experience to whatever you actually need,” Machiraju said. “If you take that out completely, then students feel like there’s only one option, and it’s not what most people want.”
Third-year Ph.D. student in biomedical informatics Checo Gonzales had a similar experience in late 2020 when he and his partner decided to move off-campus and settle in Redwood City in housing outside of what Stanford offered.
Gonzales’ main frustration with housing was the limited options offered by Stanford. He explained that searching for non-Stanford housing allowed him to find cheaper housing with a yard in Redwood City, which was much more compatible with the lifestyle he and his partner wanted to live.
Machiraju echoed this sentiment, pointing out that graduate students can rent a house off-campus for about the same price as grad students can rent an apartment on campus. A studio apartment in EVGR has a monthly rate of $2241 for couples without children. Students with children can get a two-bedroom low-rise in Escondido Village for $2490 per month. Breeland said R&DE leases off-campus apartments at market rates and then, “thanks to a significant university subsidy, is able to offer them to students at rates comparable to those for on-campus apartments.”
Machiraju said the COVID-19 pandemic prompted students to “question ‘why do we need to actually be here,’ when there are cheaper and better alternatives.”
Gonzales also felt that there was an unequal relationship between graduate students and R&DE. Oftentimes, because of the dorm options, lack of flexibility and inability to negotiate with R&DE, he felt that he was being treated like an undergraduate student.
“Working with housing made us feel like they were treating us like we were 18 years old and living in dorms,” Gonzales said. “I just turned 30 and I have a partner. The idea of living like that, it just wasn’t going to be good for our lifestyle.”
Living on campus, he said, resulted in an isolating living environment. Gonzales found solace in moving to Redwood City because of the area’s prominent Latinx community, which allowed him to build more familial bonds.
“I really do value the opportunity to just be around regular people, as opposed to other sorts of elite academics,” Gonzales said. “It’s nice to just be hanging out with people who are more like my family members, in terms of their life experiences, and to be able to connect and talk to them.”
According to Gonzales, R&DE “has a very particular idea of the kind of student that they want to live on campus.”
R&DE has specific parameters for defining a family, which affects who is eligible to live in campus housing. According to the University’s policies, a family is considered a spouse and any of the students’ children. The policy states that “Stanford does not provide housing for extended families—including students’ parents, siblings or live-in childcare staff.”
This definition of family, Gonzalez pointed out, ignores some students, specifically those in the Latinx community, who tend to live in multigenerational households and need to support older generations.
Breeland wrote that “R&DE is pleased to offer a variety of housing options – on and off-campus – to meet the diverse needs of our students. This includes single students, couples and students with children or other legal dependents.”
Unsatisfied with the housing situation, Gonzalez has decided to move to Chicago with his spouse. He described this decision as “bittersweet” and expressed sadness about leaving his cohort behind. However, he stressed the importance of being able to build financial equity and felt he couldn’t achieve that here.
For Gonzales, this decision was possible because work for his Ph.D. program is primarily done on remote servers. But for other students whose programs require in-person work, housing options are far narrower.
“It is really unfortunate to feel so devalued,” Gonzales said. “There’s a certain lifestyle that we think that we deserve and it’s unfortunate that Stanford doesn’t seem interested in maintaining that.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that Gautam Machiraju lived in Escondido Village apartments and not in the Escondido Village Graduate Residences (EVGR) complex. A previous version of this article stated that Machiraju was married to his partner. They are engaged, not married.