By Andrew Fraley
Graduate students here at Stony Brook are fighting multiple fronts for livable conditions. In addition to negotiating for a new contract for graduate assistants, teaching assistants and research assistants, a coalition of graduate groups are also fighting against rent increases for the on-campus graduate apartments.
It was announced in February that rents for the Schomburg and Chapin apartments would be increased by 4.8% for the next year. That is why on Tuesday, March 2, about a dozen residents of those apartments, organized by the Graduate Student Employees Union, Research Assistants Union and Graduate Student Organization Housing Committee, rallied for a cessation of unfair rent increases for the graduates living on campus. Zhixun Dou, a graduate student in the Cellular and Molecular Biology Department, was one of the rally’s organizers, and helped create a petition against rent hikes that was later presented to administrators. “Within a month,” said Dou, “we have collected more than 400 signatures in Schomburg and Chapin calling for no rent increases.” The petition was later presented to Peter Baigent, Vice President for Student Affairs, and Dallas Bauman, Assistant Vice President for Campus Residences.
Dou, a Chapin resident in his third year, says he will likely have to move out at the end of the semester because of the rent increase. There are others facing similar situations, too. Charilaos Papadopoulos, the secretary of Schomburg Apartments Residents Association sees this as the breaking point for many graduates, especially international students. “We’ll be paying more than 55% of our monthly income just for rent,” Explained Papadopoulos about the upcoming increase, “and we are without any alternatives.”
According to the National Low Income Housing Coaliton, for housing to be considered affordable, it must cost no more than 30% of the renter’s income. This has forced students to explore other possible alternatives.
But for international students, off campus residency may not be an option without proper transportation, like a car or location in the university area. In addition, visa restrictions prevent them from obtaining employment outside of the university to supplement their income.
This isn’t the first rent increase to hit the graduate apartments, either. Over the past five years, the rents at the two apartments have both increased by over $100, to $1,284 at Schomburg and $1,070 at Chapin. “This means the rent at Schomburg has risen by 25%, and Chapin by more than 17% in the past five years,” Explained Dou. The Housing Committee which organized the rally was formed last year in response to inadequate eviction warnings sent to apartment residents, and now advocates for all graduates seeking fair housing on and off campus. Kai Wu, a graduate in the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology department, is one those students forced off campus. Campus residences at Chapin, deciding to turn Wu’s shared-family apartment into four singles, had given him two options. Either move into a single-family apartment for $300 more, or move out. “This is pure discrimination against married students,” explained Wu, about his now limited options on campus. The additional cost was too much for Wu, who moved off campus a year ago.
Apartment rent prices, as high as they are, however, are still around the affordable limit, according to the NLIHC. The problem lies with students’ stipends, which are much lower than most comparable universities’. According to Lauren Sheprow, Director of Media Relations, “Graduate student pay is union negotiated, beyond University control.” Graduate stipends have remained unchanged for the past couple years, despite rent increases.
Juhi Tyagi is a second year graduate in the sociology department, and hasn’t seen an increase in her salary in the two years she’s worked here. Without a commensurate salary increase to accompany rent increases, there is less money students have to work with. Because of this, some students are looking at the increases as an unfair way to balance the budget. “Don’t look at students as your source of revenue,” said Tyagi. “It’s ridiculous to put all of your burden on us.” In addition, the higher rent compared to lower cost regions, like Binghamton, may scare away potential graduate prospects—a problem that the rent increases aren’t helping. “Having rent consume more than 55% of stipends puts Stony Brook University in a less competitive position on the education market,” explained Papadopoulos.
Some suggestions put forth by the protestors included a commission to review the budgets of Schomburg and Chapin apartments. A reputable third party, jointly selected by student representatives and administrators, could potentially cut costs by eliminating inefficiencies and waste. Sheprow says that the administration is receptive to this and has been over the years, so a review may be in the future for the apartments.
Zhixun Dou summed up the plight of the students well, saying, “Our message is clear: We want no rent raises.”