Rising rent risks reducing affordability

Drew Finke

On campus, a proposed tuition increase of 2.6 percent sparked protests, teach-ins and entire student groups dedicated to fighting it. However, an even greater increase in rent for student apartments has failed to excite similar outrage. In student enclaves such as West Campus, Riverside and Far West, you’re likely to hear some grumbling when students' rents increase by an expected 4.2 percent but nothing like the indignation caused by an increase in tuition. Perhaps students will live with more roommates, switch to a smaller apartment or move to a less desirable part of town where rents are lower, but in the end they'll end up paying more and getting less.

Housing both on and off campus is as much of a financial burden per semester as tuition. Since 2008, the cost of tuition at UT rose an average of nearly 15 percent. Meanwhile, the cost of renting an apartment in Austin has risen 9 percent. So why isn't anyone calling on students to Occupy West Campus?

Though the cost of tuition and the rate students pay in rent are determined very differently, there’s no reason that both shouldn't be examined in light of increasingly cash-strapped and loan-burdened students. Two possibilities as to why students and public-interest groups have not spotlighted housing costs are that a student's place of residence is assumed to be a question of personal preference, and that the issue is perceived as non-political. Neither of these perceptions is entirely accurate.

A UT education is a unique experience that can't be found at any other academic institution. An apartment, on the other hand, isn't one of a kind. Common logic says that if one apartment is too expensive, a different, cheaper apartment can be found which offers the same product — shelter — at a lower price. However, anyone who has ever apartment-hunted in Austin knows that this is a gross oversimplification. Those who are able to pay more get better apartments, heightened security and more desirable locations. Those who pay less get crime, dilapidated buildings and long commutes.

While not everyone wants to live in the newest building in the chicest neighborhood, it’s unlikely that students live in crumbling buildings or dangerous neighborhoods because of their personal preference for second-rate living conditions.

Viewing the housing market in strictly economic terms also oversimplifies the factors that influence the cost of housing for students. Ordinances and zoning codes enforced by the city restrict where and how many new apartments can get built. This affects the overall housing supply and, consequently, students' rent. Additionally, developers of new residential projects must pay into an affordable housing fund managed by the city or provide a certain percentage of apartments below market rate in their buildings. These sorts of city government interventions are important tools that are meant to positively direct the growth of the city and promote some degree of affordability. As government directives, they also make the issue of housing one that is eminently political.

College affordability is about more than just tuition. Academic materials, transportation, housing and other costs of living are burdens to students struggling to juggle jobs, loans and financial aid packages while making the most of their college experience. These expenses are variable, and unlike tuition, students can seek out deals and cheaper alternatives for things like textbooks and housing.

Nonetheless, this price elasticity is relative. Students already struggling to cope with the costs of higher education may not find much solace in finding a cheaper apartment if it means driving 30 minutes every morning to get to class.

Last week, The Daily Texan reported on a proposed development that would bring more than 100 affordable apartments to downtown Austin. This is a small but encouraging step forward for those Austinites already pushing for affordability at City Hall. While the rate of tuition increases and the tuition-setting process merit attention, less publicized costs such as apartment rents can be just as damaging to students' bank accounts and debt burdens. As student movements such as Occupy UT work to make affordability a chief concern among the University community, they should examine affordability as an issue that transcends merely the cost of tuition.

Finke is an urban studies and architecture senior.