More graduate students opt for off-campus housing as rates rise and stipends stagnate
Anne Marie Butler biked 50 minutes, two to three times a week, from her Buffalo apartment to North Campus.
Butler, a graduate student of global gender studies, is one of many graduate students who cannot afford to live on campus. She looked at UB housing rates compared to her salary as a Teaching Assistant (TA) and realized biking from her off-campus home was her best option.
Since 2014, graduate student housing rates have risen while TA and Research Assistant (RA) salaries have not. This may be why only 10 percent of graduate students live on-campus. Graduate students said the options for on-campus apartments have grown too expensive, particularly for international students without other financial support.
Some students feel Campus Living could make housing more affordable by cutting back on programming and allowing students to give more input on operational costs.
Campus Living’s expenditure for the 2016-17 year was $61.7 million and $19.7 million went toward personnel. Campus Living currently employs about 210 full-time employees and 733 student employees.
The Campus Living budget is not available online “because it is not required and students have never asked for it,” according to Campus Living Director Andrea Costantino.
Graduate Student Association (GSA) President Tanja Aho is putting forward a resolution to make university officials aware of their concerns with housing costs.
Aho said there are many reasons graduate students may choose not to live on-campus, such as the simple desire to not live near the students they teach. But not all graduate students prefer to live off-campus, and those who do, are sometimes forced to spend several hours commuting to school each day, according to Aho.
“Many graduate students, especially those in the College of Arts and Sciences, cannot afford a car from their meager TA wages,” Aho said in an email. “I know graduate students who bike 10 miles one way to campus every day because they don’t know how else to make ends meet or need to prioritize saving money in any way possible.”
Creekside Village and Flickinger Court are the two on-campus housing options for graduate students.
In 2014, students paid $590 a month to live in Flickinger Court. Although it is still the most affordable on-campus housing for graduate students and families, residents at Flickinger now pay $773 per month. Graduate students who work 20 hours a week as RAs and TAs receive a monthly $1,300 stipend, which many students say is barely enough to afford on-campus housing and food. They are not permitted to work other jobs or work over 20 hours per week.
Costantino said the rate increase was necessary because the Flickinger Court apartments now include utilities and furnishings. Campus Living added these services to help international students, who struggled to find furniture and set up utilities in their name, according to Costantino.
Ladan Golshanara, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in computer science, said she preferred having the option of unfurnished or semi-furnished rates, which Campus Living used to provide. The unfurnished apartments were less expensive and Golshanara, an international student, said Campus Living provided her with all she needed.
Golshanara lived in Creekside Village for one year and Flickinger Court for another. She moved off-campus when the rates for Flickinger Court changed because she worried every day that she wouldn’t have money to cover an unexpected emergency.
“I was never able to go to a restaurant with my friends or anything because I just had to spend my money on rent,” Golshanara said. “And [Campus Living] has some events but you know, usually you have deadlines, and you cannot always attend those events.”
Because they are paid bi-weekly, many TAs and RAs can’t afford to pay the full amount of rent at the beginning of each semester, another change Flickinger Court made in the last two years.
“Especially for international students, the university knows our salary, it’s not a secret we get paid by this weekly stipend,” Golshanara said.
When Campus Living announced a rate increase for Flickinger Court in 2014, its residents called for a meeting and met with Associate Director for Operations Mike Koziej and Costantino.
These students opposed the rate increase, and were subsequently “grandfathered in” and allowed to keep their rate by paying just a 3 to 5 percent increase each year. Incoming residents by comparison, now pay a 20 percent increase to the 2014-15 rate.
Tianle Ma, a fourth-year Ph.D. computer science student, was one of the residents who was able to keep his rate.
“UB is a very good public university, we should have affordable housing for grad students, that is what the Campus Living director said,” Ma said. “I want people to discuss this, to find a solution for this.”
Ma thinks Campus Living is spending too much on personnel and programming like resident socials and workshops. He proposed the GSA resolution asking for Campus Living to provide detailed expenditures to residents and to make students aware of public hearings before raising rent.
GSA’s proposal also asks Campus Living to “find ways to reduce the operating cost, and conduct a campus-wide study to investigate how many full-time and part-time employees are needed, what kind of programs students like most and are most cost-effective.”
Ma said most of his fellow RAs and TAs leave their apartments early for class and arrive home late and don’t necessarily benefit from programming as much as undergraduates who are in their dorms more frequently. He said many graduate students are simply looking for a safe, affordable place to sleep.
“On UB’s event calendar, each day there are dozens of events happening, many of them are happening in [the] Student Union, which helps students get involved in the community and student clubs, develop their leadership skills and achieve academic success, etc.,” Ma said. “By contrast, as far as I know, a majority of programs provided by Campus Living are free-food related activities.”
Costantino agreed on-campus housing is expensive, but disagreed with Ma’s proposed solutions. She said research shows that the programming Ma suggests cutting back on is important for student success and creating a college experience.
“It’s not all about just a bed to live in, it’s really about an experience, getting students tied to the university, connected to an experience that will allow them to persist and remain at UB and be successful, academically successful,” Costantino said.
Sarah Crowley is the senior features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org