Some postdocs received campus housing during the pandemic. Now, they’ve been asked to move out.

Postdocs say the situation is a symptom of larger ongoing housing issues at Stanford.

Sept. 8, 2022, 8:26 p.m.

Some postdoctoral scholars who entered the graduate housing lottery in hopes of being assigned University housing for the 2022-23 academic year found themselves scrambling instead to find last-minute housing unaffiliated with the University.

Before the pandemic, most postdocs lived off campus. But during the pandemic, the decreased demand for University housing gave more postdocs the opportunity to find University housing through the lottery — resulting in this summer’s lottery rejections amid the rebound in demand for University housing coming as a shock to some postdocs.

The second-round results of the lottery were announced July 23 — just three weeks before August 14, when postdocs with expiring graduate housing contracts were required to vacate their residences. 

Some postdocs who were rejected spent those three weeks anxiously looking for other housing options.

Congcong Wang, a neurology and neurological sciences postdoc, checked Zillow every day: “The market was very crazy,” she said, citing the low availability and high costs of housing in the regions neighboring Stanford.

Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) spokesperson Jocelyn Breeland wrote in a statement to The Daily that R&DE communicated to postdocs by email throughout the lottery rounds that they likely would not be able to assign “many” postdocs and that any assignments “would likely be after the start of autumn quarter.” 

Breeland declined to comment on the number of postdocs who entered the graduate housing lottery this year and were not assigned.

In the process of finding other housing options, some postdocs incurred extra expenses for moving, rent and transportation.

Cristabelle Madona De Souza, a pathology postdoc, moved into a more expensive apartment. Anticipating difficulty getting housing near Stanford, Wang also purchased a car to expand the range of places she could reach.

Some postdocs who were rejected said they wish they were notified earlier that they could not be assigned housing through the graduate housing lottery. 

De Souza said the lateness of the July 23 announcement of second-round results created problems for postdocs who suddenly had to move.

Wang said she thought that she still had a chance at being assigned housing in the second round of the lottery after she was not assigned in the first round. She said that although the May 21 email notifying her of her first-round results said not many non-matriculated students would be assigned, she assumed that at least some could.

Had postdocs been told at the time that it would be “impossible” for them to be assigned, Wang said, they would have had more time to look for other options.

On the other hand, Rohini Datta, a genetics postdoc and former events coordinator of the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS), said the results, while disappointing, did not come as a surprise.

Datta called R&DE a few days before the second-round results were announced and received a “heads up” that her chances of assignment were “very, very low.” But she was disappointed that “housing was given to postdocs during the pandemic and now, suddenly, there’s no more housing.”

Breeland wrote that more postdocs were assigned to Stanford housing in the last two years “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced demand for University housing.” Housing is now “more limited” for postdocs, Breeland wrote.

As non-matriculated students, postdocs who enter the graduate housing lottery are not assigned housing until after matriculated students, and they cannot renew their leases if assigned. Some postdocs said the situation is a symptom of ongoing housing issues at Stanford.

“You have nine months of ‘Okay, I have housing,’” said Chinyere Agbaegbu Iweka, a neurology and neurological sciences postdoc and co-chair of SURPAS. Iweka said that postdocs begin entering the lottery in the ninth month, and even if assigned, they are not guaranteed to remain in the same location. Because of this, Iweka said, postdocs move frequently, which is stressful and financially burdensome.

The short period in which postdocs had more access to University housing was a “temporary thing for a very catastrophic circumstance,” said Sur Herrera Paredes, a former biology postdoc and former co-chair of the Stanford Latinx Postdoc Association (SLPA).

Affordable housing in the Bay Area is hard to come by. The median single-family home monthly rent in the San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara region is around $4,300, one of the highest of U.S. metros. 

To adapt, Iweka said that postdocs living off campus often share residences in groups of up to four or five in order to cut costs.

But sharing residences is difficult for postdocs with families like Iweka, who took a second job as a Stanford Online High School instructor in order to afford housing. Every day, Iweka juggles caring for her children and her postdoc and instructor duties, sometimes working until midnight.

“Science itself is very, very stressful,” Iweka said. She added that worrying about where to sleep at night on top of the stresses of experiments, publications and preparing for the workforce is “not sustainable.”

International postdocs, who comprise around 60% of postdocs at Stanford, face restrictions that limit the additional employment opportunities available to them and may not have the option of taking a second job to support themselves.

Sergei Tugin, a neurology and neurological sciences postdoc, did not have a place to stay when he arrived at Stanford as an international postdoc earlier this year. He said that he struggled to find affordable housing options that would accept his pet Labrador. 

Tugin camped in a forest for the first few days while looking for housing. He said that he has “a lot of experience” with camping and that in Finland, where he completed his PhD, “everyone can stay in the forest without any permissions,” referring to the country’s freedom to roam.

“I have all the equipment, I can cook food in the forest, I can survive normally,” he said. “But I would say that I’m the exception because usually people don’t have this experience,” he continued, adding that he would not recommend camping for everyone.

Tugin said while camping was fun, figuring out where to leave his dog during work days was stressful. 

He said he looked for apartments on Craigslist every day, and after the second week, he found one that was small and expensive. “I’m paying half of my salary for the apartment,” said Tugin. “But they accepted the dog.”

Faculty and staff housing is also open to postdocs, and Faculty Staff Housing (FSH) staff meet with “all Stanford affiliates, including postdocs,” to guide them through the options, wrote University spokesperson Luisa Rapport in an email to The Daily. 

However, Wang said postdocs are in an “awkward position” of being eligible for both faculty and staff housing and graduate housing, but not having a “really high priority” for either. Wang has been on the waitlist for housing at Stanford West Apartments since March.

Moreover, Wang said income requirements for the faculty and staff housing options make it difficult for postdocs, especially those living alone, to qualify. For example, monthly rent for the smallest one bedroom apartment at Stanford West is just over $2,900, meaning that in order to reach a 40% rent-to-income ratio, a postdoc would need to earn over $7,000 a month — which Wang said is more than what postdocs earn. 

FSH did not respond to a request for comment, citing that the senior associate provost for FSH, who typically responds to comment requests, was not available. 

Iweka said a housing working group involving the OPA, SURPAS and several faculty has been formed, but work towards change has been slow. 

“If you just say, ‘Okay, we’re going to work on this,’ you would get some resolution soon, rather than later,” Iweka said. “We don’t need to just be slow about this.”

Associate Vice Provost and Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Affairs Sofie Kleppner wrote in a statement to The Daily that the pandemic, post-pandemic housing market and Stanford’s withdrawal of its General Use Permit application have made planning for improving postdoc housing “tremendously difficult.”

The Provost’s Advisory Committee on Postdoctoral Affairs (PACPA) is “actively working on recommendations and advocating for affordability measures, including housing, that will benefit postdocs,” Kleppner wrote.

Breeland wrote that R&DE and the OPA are offering a pilot transitional housing program “in response to feedback from postdocs in the university’s affordability study.” However, the housing is meant only for incoming postdocs and is provided at market rate for a maximum of only four months, intended as a place for postdocs to stay as they look for long-term housing in the region.

The postdocs interviewed had a range of ideas for addressing postdoc housing issues at Stanford, from salary increases to dedicated, subsidized housing for postdocs. 

Wang said another way the University could help is increasing postdocs’ priority and lowering their rent for faculty and staff housing.

De Souza said a separate housing lottery for postdocs could reduce the “ambiguity” created by having postdocs compete with matriculated students for housing.

Tim MacKenzie, a genetics postdoc and former SURPAS advocacy coordinator, said that in the short term, the University could directly support postdocs who were required to vacate in “either getting shelter or finding it.”

Herrera Paredes said, “I think solutions exist. It’s just a matter of taking the decision of following up on some of those.”

Ultimately, Iweka said, recognizing that postdocs are part of the Stanford community and providing them a “guaranteed place to lay their heads at night” would make their other stresses more manageable.

“Just doing something for postdocs would really go a long way,” Iweka said.

Contact Anne at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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