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UB Foundation-owned housing rates climb while grad students fight for living wage

The Faculty-Student Housing Corp. made over $1 million in profits last year

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Every year students pay more money to live on campus at UB.

A 10-month lease in Greiner Hall costs $882 more than it did in 2014. A year-long lease in the Flickinger Court Apartments, the only on-campus housing for graduate students with families, costs $3,652 more than it did in 2015.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization that owns and maintains the properties netted more than $1 million in profit during a 12-month period in 2015 and 2016.

Graduate student stipends have not kept pace with the cost of student housing, which has increased steadily over the last decade, alongside student tuition and fees. While graduate students protested for wage increases outside UB’s annual Celebration of Excellence ceremony on Thursday, a local attorney argued in front of State Supreme Court Judge Diane Devlin that open-government laws should apply to the nonprofit Faculty-Student Housing Corp., which has turned a profit of more than $1 million in four of five recent years for which financial figures are available.

Since its 1990 incorporation, the Faculty-Student Housing Corp. has built six of UB’s major housing complexes: Flickinger Court, South Lake Village, Flint Village, Creekside Village, Hadley Village Apartments and Greiner Hall.

As one of the UB Foundation’s affiliate organizations, the nonprofit’s stated mission is to “support the educational purposes of the University at Buffalo and to lessen the burden of government by acquiring, constructing, renovating and maintaining residential facilities for students/faculty.”

Its website boasts a near-100 percent occupancy rate for its properties, made possible by an agreement with UB to funnel students to these six properties before filling other dorms, according to court documents.

The Housing Corp. negotiates rates in order to pay off debt on the housing projects. Its agreement with SUNY further allows it to create excess revenue for itself and indirectly, the UB Foundation, said Laura Hubbard, vice president of finance and administration, in an affidavit she filed in response to alumnus John Lipsitz’s petition against the Housing Corp.

Lipsitz, a former professor at the School of Law, argues that the Housing Corp. should make its records and meetings public. He doesn’t think students know where their money is going.

Lipsitz draws a distinction between the funding structures of the Housing Corp. and the UB Foundation. In a previous court case, the university argued that the UB Foundation’s funds mostly consist of private donations and should thus not be subject to state transparency laws.

“These are not donations,” Lipsitz said. “They’re not private money where you reach into your pocket and say, ‘I wanna give $100 for my school.’ These are mandatory fees if you’re living on campus, and it really should be treated as public money going to the university. I don’t know if students know their payments essentially end up in the coffers of the UB Foundation when they pay the rent, or however it’s characterized, for their dormitory space.”

UB Foundation Director Ed Schneider did not respond to requests for comment.

In her affidavit, Hubbard said the relationship between SUNY and the Housing Corp. is at most “arms-length.”

“SUNY collects the rental payments from the student tenants on the Housing Corp.’s behalf and then immediately remits them to the Housing Corp.,” Hubbard said in her affidavit. “At no time do these rental payments become state or SUNY funds. SUNY merely collects the rental payment on the Housing Corp.’s behalf.”

Lipsitz disagrees.

He says the overlap between the Housing Corp.’s public and private affairs is blatant and manifest in practices across the campus. For example, UB uses housing payments to leverage control in the academic sphere, placing holds on student accounts and transcripts until payments are made, Lipsitz said.

He argues the student rentals boil down to mandatory state fees, especially since most students from outside the Buffalo area are likely to feel some pressure to live on campus.

UB seems to agree that living on campus is, if not essential for some students, at least ideal.

The Campus Living website says students who live on campus are more academically successful, more likely to make friends and more likely to be “overall happier with their UB experience, according to research.”

In 2001, when the housing boom on UB’s North Campus was just getting underway, then-President William Greiner told The Buffalo News UB’s competitive housing would “put heat” on the University Heights landlords to clean up their act. Sixteen years later, that hasn’t been the case.

Students still opt to live in the University Heights neighborhoods over on-campus apartments – despite well-documented problems with housing safety violations, absentee landlords and the area’s problem with burglaries and violence – because the apartments there are affordable.

Just 10 percent of graduate students live on campus, in part because of increasing apartment rates coupled with stagnant stipends, former Campus Living director Andrea Costantino told The Spectrum last spring.

Jake Sanders, a third-year graduate student in the English department, said he has to work two other jobs on campus to supplement his teaching stipend and is still sometimes short on money.

“Rents have risen in Buffalo in the past five years, gradually, and a lot of us have a hard time struggling to pay rent, eat food,” Sanders said. “We just want to be able to keep up with the costs of living.”

Last April, the Graduate Student Association asked Vice President of Student Life Scott Weber and Costantino to look at the reasons on-campus housing has grown unaffordable for many. Flickinger Court, the only on-campus apartment complex for graduate students with children, saw a 20 percent rate increase, which former GSA President Tanja Aho said effectively pushed many families off campus.

The resolution asked UB administrators to commission a report on graduate students’ on-campus housing issues; address the concerns of on-campus housing affordability; inform all residents and conduct a public forum before increasing housing rates and provide an annual expenditure report online.

Forms the Housing Corp. is required to file with the IRS show the nonprofit netted nearly $2 million in the fiscal year between 2011 and 2012. The next year, it brought in about $1.2 million. The year after that, it began transferring $740,000 annually back to the university, but still brought in $1.7 million after the transfer. The Housing Corp. lost about $1 million in fiscal 2014-15 before rebounding for another $1 million profit in 2015-16, records show.

Affordable housing is a key part of the Living Stipend Movement, a campaign by and for graduate students to bring TA and RA stipends up to a “living wage.” The movement asks UB to raise all stipends to a minimum of $21,310.

Administrators have given several answers for why they can’t raise stipends. The market decides the stipends, said Craig Abbey, associate vice president and director of institutional analysis. An English TA can’t expect the stipend of an engineering TA, he said.

The university also can’t raise stipends even if it wanted to because the departments determine the stipends, according to Graham Hammill, vice provost of graduate education and dean of the graduate school. Departments may have to make tough decisions if they want to pay TAs more, he said.

But President Satish Tripathi and Vice Provost Charles Zukoski publicly acknowledged on several occasions that the stipend situation is a real problem, which they’re actively looking into improving.

Tripathi also said he doesn’t classify TAs’ work as labor. They aren’t employees, he said in Spectrum Q&A. Teaching is part of their learning experience. He also argues that the overall package, including tuition and health care, is competitive nationwide.

Willis McCumber, a second-year Ph.D. student in the English department, said he knows graduate school is supposed to be stressful, and a certain level of financial tenuity is kind of part of the “experience.”

But it’s wearing him down.

“Teaching is a major aspect of what we do and a major way we grow as scholars, to work on our teaching. It’s tough. If my car broke down, my teaching would just sort of be over in some ways,” McCumber said. “And just living with that awareness, sort of gnaws away at your ability to do that job. I have a housemate, and I actually rent month-to-month downtown. It’s another aspect of the sort of precarious life, that, as I say, it’s part of being a grad student, having this kind of lifestyle, but these extra pressures are like another layer.”

McCumber said it could be worse. TAs in other departments make less than they would in the English department.

Sarah Crowley is the senior news editor and can be reached at sarah.crowley@ubspectrum.com


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