Housing policy changes uproot graduate students

Morgan O'Hanlon

Leon Staines, his wife and young son moved from Mexico to Austin in 2017 in order for him to pursue his Ph.D. After spending nearly two years on a waitlist that’s currently 900 people long, they moved into Colorado Apartments in February.

Now, along with 80 other households, they will be forced to move due to changes in University Apartments policies announced last month.

“I have never been in a vulnerable position in my life until this moment,” Staines said. “The whole thing has been very aggressive … I don’t feel that we were included at all in this decision.”

University Apartments is a group of three apartment complexes — Brackenridge, Colorado and Gateway — owned by University Housing and Dining and available to undergraduates, graduate students, their families and other non-familial registered guests. Previously, each of the three complexes accommodated a wide range of living situations, but the new UHD policies, announced on March 11th, would reorganize the residents. Under the new policies, families will be required to move to the Brackenridge complex, non-familial registered guests will no longer be permitted to live in University Apartments, and the Colorado and Gateway apartments will be rented out on a room-by-room basis to students only.

These changes would create space in University Apartments for up to 190 additional UT student contract holders, according to UHD.

UHD residence life director Mylon Kirksy has been working since the policy change announcement to negotiate the rollout of the policy changes through a series of meetings with tenants, student representatives and campus leaders. UHD said it is not open to delaying the process, however, after hearing complaints from residents, UHD released accommodations to the policy changes, including an option for student tenants who meet certain requirements to delay their apartment transfer until June 2020. The department will also provide additional means to financially assist residents who must make an apartment transfer.

“We recognize that there are unique circumstances which may require exceptions not listed above so we will consider accommodations on a case-by-case basis,” UHD said in an email.

There are currently 700 registered guests living in University Apartments, 60 of whom are UT students. UHD said the policy change will not displace any UT students, and there will be enough space to accommodate any of those 60 students who want to become contract holders themselves. The remaining non-familial registered guests who aren’t UT students will have to move out by July 1, 2019.

Mary Frances Lopez, a curriculum and instruction Ph.D. student, said she would not have come to UT if she’d known about the impending housing changes.

She lives in a two bedroom apartment in Brackenridge with her cousin, a registered guest with no UT affiliation, with whom she splits rent. Now, her cousin will have to leave and Lopez will take on the full rent expense.

“It felt like they forced me into a choice between my Ph.D. and supporting my family,” Lopez said.

For residents like Staines, a lack of affordable housing options in Austin will force them to comply with changes, disruptive as they may be. The average cost of a one bedroom apartment in Austin is $1,354. The average cost for a one bedroom apartment at University Apartments is only $708.

“This is really a cheap option compared to the rest of the city,” Staines said. “They know we are going to accept.”

Throughout Austin, including University Apartments, the average cost of a one bedroom apartment increased by approximately 20% between 2016 and now. Graduate student hourly wages have only increased by 1.7% since 2013, according to a survey of 694 graduate students conducted last year by the Graduate Student Labor Conditions Committee.

The survey of graduate students also reported that 50% of those without a full tuition waiver and 30% of those with a full tuition waiver take second jobs in order to make ends meet.

However, for some University Apartments residents, taking a second job isn’t an option. 80% of University Apartments contract holders are international students, whose spouses, or they themselves, may be limited in their employment options due to their visas.

Nino Bariola, a fifth-year sociology Ph.D. student who currently lives in Brackenridge with his wife and young daughter, recently defended his dissertation proposal and won’t be living in University Apartments next year. However, he helped organize residents into the Tenants Association on March 17 in response to the policy changes and has been coordinating its own meetings to push for a delayed policy implementation. He said students need to be properly considered in the rollout of new policies because of their disruptive effects.

“I personally have been receiving phone calls (from tenants) saying, ‘This is really disturbing, this is making me depressed or anxious or having mental health issues in general,’” Bariola said.

Bariola agrees with UHD’s goal to make housing accessible to more students, but said the current process has been tainted by miscommunication on the part of UHD.

“To upset our living condition and to do so without providing research and data that someway shows that this will improve to us the livelihood of a lot of other students — that, to us, is very disturbing.”