Written by Tess Sheets

Apartment units with tall ceilings and modern appliances. Study rooms and quiet nooks. A courtyard backing up to a community center with multi-purpose event spaces.

UC Irvine ’s newest student housing addition, Verano 8, has all the trappings fit for graduate students to live and work where they study — and it’s priced at a percentage of the market-rate apartments for rent in the area.

Amid record-high rent prices across Southern California, the financial burden of housing befalls many college and graduate students acutely. A 2020 report by the Regents of the University of California on students’ basic needs cited the cost of housing as the “highest contributor to student debt and among the most significant contributing factors to students’ unstable and unhealthy basic needs experiences.”

As cities across California seek to add more affordable housing to their inventory, public universities and community colleges, too, are committing to building housing aimed at being affordable to its students, some with the help of state funds recently set aside for schools to build low-cost on-campus living options.

A walkway between two of the buildings in the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, the newest addition to the Verano Towers. The walkway is bordered by a rock swale to capture rainfall. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

A compact studio apartment has everything in a very small space at the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, at UC Irvine, the newest addition to the Verano Towers. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

Tall ceilings and ceiling fans are part of the compact bedrooms in the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, at UC Irvine, the newest addition to the Verano Towers. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

The main living area of one of the two-bedroom suites in the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, the newest addition to the Verano Towers at UC Irvine. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

The kitchen and eating area of one of the two-bedroom apartments in the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, at UC Irvine, the newest addition to the Verano Towers. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

Both bedrooms of a two-bedroom apartment at the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, at UC Irvine, the newest addition to the Verano Towers. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

A garden area where students can grow vegetables and other plants is in between two of the new buildings at the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, the newest addition to the Verano Towers at UC Irvine. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

About a dozen vocal protesters showed up as UC Irvine unveiled its new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, the newest addition to the Verano Towers. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

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Two students hang out in one of the common areas of the new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, the newest addition to the Verano Towers, at UC Irvine. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

Al Nikzamir, left, and Sam Mohaddsi, right, play a spirited game of foosball in the new Community Center as UC Irvine unveiled its new graduate housing complex: Verano 8, the newest addition to the Verano Towers. The complex includes a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments in Irvine on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)

In multiple surveys of California college students around the state, no small number have reported experiencing some form of housing insecurity, including not being able to pay rent or frequent moving. In one 2019 survey by the California Student Aid Commission of students from public and private colleges, 35% said they experienced housing insecurity.

Among UC undergraduate and graduate students, 5% in 2016 said they had been homeless and 16% had experienced housing insecurity in the last year, meaning they had slept in a hotel, transitional housing, homeless center, or some other place overnight “because they did not have a permanent home to return to,” the report on students’ basic needs said .

“I think it’s been clear from the past couple of years of advocacy that students are extremely rent burdened, especially in and around Irvine,” said Reginald Gardner, president of UCI’s Associated Graduate Students. “It’s not the cheapest place on earth. But University of California, Irvine, has a world-class education so a lot of students want to come here to master their craft.

“Whether an MFA, professional masters students, Ph.D. student, everyone has something to give to their discipline, and being rent burdened shouldn’t be part of that equation,” Gardner said.

Lawmakers last year committed to allocating $2 billion in grants over three years for community colleges as well as UC and California State University schools to build or renovate affordable on-campus housing. The Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program set aside 50% of the funds for California Community Colleges, 30% for Cal State schools, and 20% for UC institutions.

More than $1.4 billion is set to be spread out to schools this fiscal year. The money includes $65 million to UCI and $88.9 million to Cal State Fullerton.

Another $17.9 million in state funds is expected to be allocated to California Community Colleges for planning grants to explore the feasibility of affordable student housing on their campuses.

Sheri Ledbetter, a spokeswoman at UCI, said the Verano 8 apartments weren’t funded through the Higher Education Student Housing grants — which she said were focused on undergraduate housing projects — but “entirely through bonds and a large cash contribution from housing reserves.”

At Verano 8, the goal was to price units 30% below the market rate for housing, and the university “exceeded that metric considerably,” Ledbetter said. Students can rent per-bed from $895 a month in a four-bedroom apartment with their own bathroom to $995 in a two-bedroom with a shared bath. Studios go for $1,225 per month.

Dr. Gillian Hayes, UCI’s dean of the graduate division, said having affordable housing on campus is “the difference … between students being able to come here and feel like they can be successful and have a life, and students having to commute from very far away or live many students to an apartment or other kinds of things that you see happening in other similar sort of housing markets.”

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“That’s substantial,” she said.

Under UCI’s guaranteed housing program, all Ph.D., MFA, and JD students are ensured a living option available to them on campus. With the 1,055 new beds Verano 8 adds to the university, UCI can place more graduate students earning master’s or other degrees, Hayes said.

For some graduate students, the cost of living, even on campus, is still too high, though.

Ainsley Pullen, a graduate student and co-founder of Anteater Tenants United — a union pushing for more affordable housing for UCI students and employees — said many students remain rent burdened even while living in one of the university’s low-cost units, meaning they spend more than 30% of the money they make on rent.

A group of students, including Pullen, protested on Thursday, Aug. 18, outside of the new Verano 8 apartments during an unveiling of the complex. Holding signs that read, “End Rent Burden Now” and “The Rent is Too High,” the group said the new apartments were still not affordable enough.

“Since many of us are paid by the university, it seems obvious to us that they would be able to figure out a way where we could pay only 30% of our [Teaching Assistant] income towards rent,” Pullen said.

Fatima Jeffrey lives in a graduate housing complex on campus with her husband, who is getting his Ph.D. in sociology, and their six-month-old. She said she thinks it’s “unfair” that student housing rent has increased every semester while the salaries for students have virtually stayed the same.

Still, the apartment her family is in at the older Verano Place complex is priced far below what some of her friends who live nearby but off-campus pay, she said. And there are other benefits, she said, such as paying less for travel for her husband to get to school and work and being in a community among people who are in similar stages of their lives.

Gardner said the value of having a range of housing opportunities on UCI’s campus, including an affordable option, is often “understated,” though he noted pricing on some of the units the school offers is even high for him. But outside of rare circumstances, market-rate rents in the area are “impossible” to pay in comparison, he said.

For university officials, offering housing is considered a crucial factor in committing to universal access to education, Hayes said.

“When we take access to our universities seriously, we have to take housing seriously,” she said  “And what we see is that every time a university grows to a certain size, housing around it just becomes really much more expensive.”

In terms of the most important needs people have, “housing is pretty fundamental,” Hayes said.

“I love living in this beautiful place. I’m glad everyone else loves living here too,” she said. “But that means that housing in the outside market is just going up and up and up and up. And so we owe it to our students to continue this commitment to continue to build excellent housing for their success.”

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