Life of graduates: when your employer is also your owner

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This is the second in a series of opinion pieces published by the Stanford Solidarity Network detailing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on graduate students. Read the first here.

There was only one mention of graduate students in Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s report most recent update on “Our Next Steps” – that the administrators “have delayed the housing lottery until we have more visibility on the evolution of the orders of shelters in place of the county”. If we’re lucky, all graduate students will have a place to live in the next school year. May be.

This week’s editorial will take a closer look at one of the biggest financial challenges facing graduate students and explain how the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating the already difficult housing situation. We highlight testimonials from graduate students that reflect the urgent need for more affordable housing support from Stanford.

The cost of living at Stanford

Housing is one of the main sources of anxiety for graduate students. It’s expensive: For many, rent can eat up nearly half of every salary. Graduate students who travel during the summer for research opportunities are stuck in their housing contracts and forced to find a sub-letter – and accept the losses when they can’t find one. When the new Escondido Village Graduate Residences complex opens initially scheduled for this summer, rent is expected to increase by 16% across all graduate housing options for the 2020-21 school year, while the availability of ‘affordable housing ”(Ie housing that costs less than 30% of income) will decrease by 80%. We made this calculation in a simpler time when we worried about having homes without the threat of a global pandemic. You can see the full breakdown here.

Despite Stanford’s alleged concerns about the affordability and training of the Affordability Working Group, the number of graduate housing costing less than 40% of income will also decrease by 32% from the previous year, while the availability of housing costing 40-60% of income is expected to increase by 119%. For reference, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that those who spend more than 30% of their income on housing are considered to be burdened with costs and may have difficulty paying for necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. This is the reality for almost every graduate student living in college accommodation with a graduate scholarship while teaching classes, conducting research and trying to make ends meet in the Bay Area.

When we circulated the University-wide graduate student petition Calling on the administration to take action to protect the most vulnerable members of the graduate student community and to respond to the looming long-term threats of the pandemic to graduate students, we asked signatories to anonymously share personal stories about how the crisis impacted their lives. We received nearly 30 pages of testimonials. They are all unique, but the situations they relate to seem familiar.

I will not have summer funding and will have to use up my personal savings to stay in the bay. I have nowhere to go because my closest family is immunocompromised. The progress of my research is delayed because my partners in my study community do not hold the meetings where I virtually share the progress of my work. I am deeply anxious and scared.

Multiplying concerns: COVID-19 x housing on campus

The struggle to afford to pursue a doctorate. at Stanford is well documented. When most of the monthly income is spent on rent, the money to cover unforeseen expenses quickly evaporates. The high prices of graduate housing combined with the high cost of health care coverage for dependents place a significant burden on students with spouses and families. We spent over a year defending more equitable health care options for families of graduate students, and the COVID-19 crisis has multiplied unexpected costs, such as the materials needed to continue researching and teaching remotely, book purchases due to the closure of libraries and supplies extra to care for and teach children. Expecting these “unexpected” expenses is quickly becoming the new normal for graduate students – but the limited budgets of our scholarships and academic assistantships offer little flexibility to make adjustments.

Our two standard options for dealing with emergency expenses are either 1) to bear the costs ourselves up front and then hope that funding such as the Emergency grant could reimburse us for it, or 2) request a cash advance on our salaries. The first option carries the risk of being denied an application after spending the money. The description of what the grant covers is vague and there is little recourse when a request for funding is refused. The second option is a little more than kicking the box when our bank accounts are dry. While a cash advance can work effectively to cover common cash flow issues, such as paying for flights and accommodation to attend a conference when it is reimbursed months later, expenses related to COVID- 19 threaten to quickly exhaust any reserves of savings that we may have. . Of course, some graduate students have a financial safety net (be it independent savings, family support, a working spouse), which is the invisible dividing line that runs through the entire graduate community. Those who do not – the most vulnerable among us – are now even more exposed to financial risk.

[The pandemic] cost me the most financially because I went to the east coast to be with my family during that time (and also to escape the hotbed of the virus in California). However, it is very painful that I am still paying a huge portion of my rent allowance right now because I cannot get my things out of my apartment in Stanford. Ideally, I would end my housing contract, but I don’t know what would happen to all of my stuff. And I do not‘t want to lose priority when returning to campus (hopefully in the fall).

Housed or homeless – strangers abound

In a University-wide graduate student petition, graduate students have asked for an economic hardship relief from housing costs on and around campus. Here are some of the most pressing housing concerns that Stanford has yet to address:

  • The University said students who left campus housing before March 30 may retain housing priority. Will all students who leave after this date lose their priority? Does this oblige students to keep their housing contract during the summer?
  • Most doctoral programs offer a smaller allowance during the summer because students spend the summer elsewhere and sublet their apartments on campus. It will not be possible to do this during the summer due to the pandemic. How are students supposed to make ends meet when locked into expensive housing deals?
  • Stanford is asking students who need financial help with moving expenses to take on more debt through a Graduate housing loan up to $ 6,000 to cover moving expenses, security deposits and the first month’s rent. Students must repay this loan six months after the end of their enrollment at an interest rate of 5%.
  • For years, Stanford has planned to move more than 2,000 graduate students from subsidized off-campus housing to Escondido Village graduate residences. Before the pandemic, those moves were due to take place in the summer of 2020. Now that the housing lottery has been delayed, students in off-campus housing are left in limbo. Will students have to move in the fall to take classes and teach? And for students who have moved out of their off-campus apartments due to affordability concerns related to COVID-19, where will they go back? It is impossible to plan for the financial and emotional drain of the move.

I am in a precarious situation where I am forced to switch from subsidized off-campus housing to on-campus housing in September. This will not only lead to a probable rent increase of 50-80%, but also left me in a position where I don’t know how to move apartments and when I can see my loved ones again.

Getting through the crisis: a precarious calculation

Although our university departments and the housing office are worlds apart within the fractured structure of the University, for us, our employer and our landlord are one. The University divides its financial considerations for graduate students into two distinct markets. On the one hand, the job market for graduate students and on the other, the Bay Area housing market. While the wage and rent rates may seem reasonable when considered independently, the reality is this: Stanford fixes our annual income, as well as the price of our most expensive monthly expenses (rent), and tries to make a living. with what little is left after rent and taxes is a difficult juggling act.

With the level of wealth that Stanford enjoys, we should aim to do better than a situation where financially well-off graduate students are pre-packed with the means to succeed, while those in more difficult circumstances face financial hardship. important issues and their effect on their research and graduation progress. By compounding existing demands on our energy and finances, COVID-19 will have dire consequences for graduate students, although many of these consequences will not materialize until later.

For this reason, we are looking at this point for a clear articulation of Stanford support: that all graduate students will be funded by the current crisis this summer, and have the most existential issues – housing and health insurance – directly addressed as the situation continues to develop and the summer term, in just six weeks’ time, ends. close.

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