University of Utah students will lose their affordable housing to new rents that cost nearly twice as much.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

When Robert Kok moved to Salt Lake City five years ago to do his PhD in philosophy of biology at the University of Utah, renting was still fairly affordable.

That has changed. Rental prices rose when Kok and his partner welcomed a third member to their family. With skyrocketing rents and a baby, surviving on her meager income became harder.

Luckily, about two years ago, they managed to secure a place in America’s affordable college dormitories. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a complex called the West Village, which was only $980 a month.

Kok continued his research, which he described as “focusing on different theoretical models for parasite research or parasite epidemiology,” as his partner worked part-time in a preschool.

This stability ended on October 21st. They received an email informing the family that they would have to move out in August 2023. In addition, 334 more apartments would be closed as part of a gradual closure and demolition of the old, increasingly dilapidated student residences for graduates and families who have called them home for the past two years.

“We can just barely afford what we can afford now,” said Kok. “I just don’t see how I can move out with my family and afford what’s out there right now.”

Sunnyside Apartments, new graduate and family apartments, will open in August next year. There will be 565 “total rentable space”. A two-bedroom unit costs $1,750 per month — a $770 increase from what Kok is currently paying.

He’s just one of many U. students who can’t afford the new apartments on campus. Apartments available off campus are the same or more expensive. While a relatively small portion of the U.’s graduate students live in the subpar housing on campus, their plight sheds light on the precarious situation of students, especially students with families trying to survive on meager scholarships in an increasingly unaffordable city .

“It’s an emotional tribute,” said Kok. “How are we supposed to survive?”

crumbling buildings

The West Village, East Village, and Medical Plaza, built 50 to 60 years ago, have served families and graduate students at the U. for generations. Loans taken out to build the complexes were repaid decades ago, said Jennifer Reed, associate vice president of Auxiliary Services. Without making debt payments, the U. opted to keep rents on the apartments “artificially low.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Medical Plaza Towers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, November 22, 2022.

The complexes are now nearly impossible to maintain, Reed said. Plumbing disintegrate – in one case a pipe burst over a student’s bed. Due to major repairs, the U. had to accommodate more and more students in hotel rooms. The buildings also do not comply with current seismic regulations.

Given all of these factors, plans were put in motion a decade ago to eventually demolish and replace the homes, Reed said.

The October 31 announcement marked an early part of this phased closure process – 208 homes have already been closed. By 2030, the Medical Towers and East and West Villages, which together had 1,115 apartments, are expected to be demolished.

For now, apartments in Medical Plaza and parts of the West Villages are closing.

Some students living in these buildings may be on the waiting list to move to another of the older buildings, which are yet to be demolished, but demand is exceeding capacity.

The new apartments, currently under construction, were funded with a $126 million bond that the university will repay over the next 30 years, Reed said. The U. must charge higher interest rates to pay off that debt, she said.

“It’s likely that some students will have to leave campus because the new rates don’t work for their budget,” Reed said. “So we tried to give early notice so the students had time to make those plans.”

She also noted that “the largest percentage of our students rent off-campus.” Around 490 graduate students are housed in student housing at the university, while more than 8,000 students are pursuing degrees at the U.

“We’re committed to accommodating a certain percentage of that student population,” Reed said. “And I think it’s a really great opportunity. But we understand that this transition from old to new is difficult for many students.”

torment and organize

Faced with losing their affordable housing, graduate students are organizing.

In a forum on November 1, Reed spoke to residents about the decision to close some of the apartments. The forum got heated towards the end as some students described the decision as “a slap in the face”.

“It’s a bit devastating for us,” said another student.

There is hope that the administration will change its mind and adjust rental prices for students who graduate.

“We hope they do something to help the students,” said Blake Billings, mayor of the University Student Apartments residents’ council and a chemical engineering graduate student.

He said the demolition of Court 700 in the West Village and the Medical Towers came as a surprise to students. “There are students there who planned to pay the rent in this building for their entire course,” Billings said. “And now they’re trying to double their rent to move further off campus.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Blake Billings, a University of Utah chemical engineering graduate student who also serves as mayor of the Graduate Housing Council, in the courtyard of the University Student Apartments, November 23, 2022.

A petition urging governing bodies to “partially limit price differentials to an affordable range based on students’ incomes and stipends” has been circulated, and meetings with U. governing bodies are in the works.

Ava Anjom and Mehdi Eskandari-Ghadi, who organized the petition, say they have received 158 signatures so far.

The couple shared some of the responses they received with the Tribune. “The new rent rates are unethical and will abandon many students,” one student wrote. Another shared that the new rent would be more than 60% of her income.

In December, Billings and other students will discuss the situation with a group of administrators, including Cathy Anderson, the university’s CFO; Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs; David Kieda, Dean of Graduate School; and reeds.

“I think our administration is willing to listen to student concerns and then decide whether or not they can change the decisions that have already been made regarding rental rates,” Reed said.

But, continued Reed, if the U were to move some graduate students into the new buildings at their old rent rates, “it offers some students a subsidy that others don’t get, so we have to be careful about what kind of subsidies help that.” we are able to afford due to the circumstances.”

What about the grant increase?

“We’re trying to come up with a list of solutions,” Billings said. Increasing stipends for graduate students so they can actually afford the rents on and off campus is one option.

Kok earns approximately $23,000 per academic year as a research associate at the U.

About 2,500 graduates receive a tuition grant, said U. Graduate School Dean David Kieda. This benefit includes “free base tuition” and a stipend for teaching and research.

Kieda said the minimum scholarship set by the U. is about $9,000 per fall and spring semester and $5,000 for the summer. How much a graduate student earns varies widely across disciplines, with STEM students tending to earn more and humanities and social sciences students less.

After a quick calculation of rent, gas, and insurance costs, Kieda estimated that graduate students earning the minimum stipend have about $65 a week to live on.

Life for those earning that minimum wage, Kieda said, is not easy. “If you go to the hospital, there’s a $75 co-pay for the emergency room. So I can choose between eating something this week or going to the hospital in an emergency.”

“We have to do better than that,” said Kieda. “We need to have more resources and [give students] the ability not to live so close to the edge.”

He understands why rents at the Sunnyside Apartments were competitive and points to the increase in grants as a possible way to reduce financial stress for graduate students living both on and off campus.

Kieda is particularly concerned about what the low scholarships, coupled with rising rents, will mean for first-generation or low-income college students’ access to college degrees.

Living on $24,000 a year is a lot easier when you have parents who can help. For those who don’t, they can take out loans, but students living on lower incomes also tend to be more debt-averse, Kieda said.

“If you don’t give students enough money, they’ll go out and do another job that has nothing to do with their teaching or research. I prefer to let them do research or teach.”

Billings said he was “more blessed than most” with his $38,000 annual stipend. His apartment complex is pending demolition and he continues to pay a lower interest rate. Although he is luckier than others with two children and a third child, his family has to be careful with their wallets.

They take advantage of free programs on campus for entertainment and sign up with WIC for help buying basic groceries like yogurt, eggs, and cheese. “Most of my friends are on WIC when they have kids,” Billings said.

He’s trying to complete his studies without taking out student loans – “I don’t know if it would be possible if we had the higher rent,” he said. And if credit had been required to complete his education, “I probably would have gone to a different school,” Billings said.

Kieda said he’s spoken to the U.’s CFO, and students like Billings are also speaking to administration officials about raising grants or considering housing benefits. Then, at 5 p.m. Monday, U. spokeswoman Rebecca Walsh emailed The Tribune, stating that “university leaders have decided to set up a task force to look at graduate student compensation.” The task force will report its findings next year, Walsh wrote.

This gives students like Kok hope that a solution will be found by next August 1st, when they are forced to leave their homes.

For now, Kok said, “I have to split up.” University of Utah students will lose their affordable housing to new rents that cost nearly twice as much.

Justin Scacco

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