University housing policy imposes higher fees and emotional distress on graduate students

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Caragh McErlean/Staff

In 2017, graduate students reported that their top two struggles are a lack of financial resources and mental health issues, as shown in the Graduate Student Well-Being Survey. Despite these clear survey results, UC Berkeley Housing has raised rents 4 to 6 percent this year, added parking fees in campus-run family housing and added an emotional distress clause to some rental agreements. Why isn’t the campus taking our concerns seriously?

I live in a 260-square-foot studio in Manville Apartments, one of several UC Berkeley-run housing units near campus. In two cycles of lease renewals, my rent has gone up from $1125 per month to $1240 per month, a 10 percent increase. In University Village, guest parking spots — formerly a $1 amenity depended on by residents — are now subject to fees of $12 per day. In a breach of protocol, the campus failed to notify the UC Student-Workers Union, also known as United Auto Workers Local 2865, in advance about the new parking fees. Union members and residents successfully delayed parking fee implementation until May 10, but the ultimate outcome is uncertain.

The campus is trying to reduce the $57 million deficit, and I applaud this goal. However, graduate students live on a fixed income, and stipends vary considerably: from $18,500 to $30,000, according to the Graduate Division website. Many of us, particularly those with smaller stipends, cannot keep up with rent hikes on the order of 6 percent a year. One of the guiding principles put forth by Chancellor Carol Christ in her April budget message was to “demonstrate transparency in our decision making and communication.” The campus should therefore disclose its annual operating costs to give a true sense of what fees are (or are not) warranted in graduate accommodation. The campus advertises its housing as student- and family-friendly. Shouldn’t it then serve the financial reality of students as they endeavor to earn an education?

Working with UAW Local 2865 members, I canvassed in Manville to protest the rent hike and lack of transparency. More than 200 residents across Manville, Ida Jackson and University Village have signed the petition so far. On April 15, I delivered the petition signed by Manville residents to Residential and Housing Services; on April 23, UC Berkeley Housing emailed Manville residents to say that the 6 percent rent increase was “incorrect” and that a 4 percent increase will be applied instead. There was no explanation in the email about how these new figures were calculated or whether they were a result of the petition.

Additionally, a new section to lease agreements at University Village grants the campus the right to unilaterally evict student tenants who are “emotionally unfit.” This broad category includes “serious emotional crises or incidents of alcohol overdose, substance abuse, bulimia, anorexia, emotional breakdown or other similar behavior,” as well as suicidal tendencies or known instances of suicidal actions. The new policy raises two important questions: Are residents going to gain anything, and how will the campus enforce the policy?

Graduate students (doctoral students in particular) are six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as other young adults not in graduate school, according to a 2018 study on mental illness and graduate education. I fear that the emotional distress policy could actually deter those who stand to gain the most from treatment. The campus must assert its support for mental health care. University Village residents voiced their displeasure about the policy, and a campus spokesperson said the clause will be removed. However, new leases without the clause have not been delivered to residents.

 I am concerned about how the emotional fitness clause could be applied to my neighbors if it remains in the lease. Earlier this spring, a doctoral student residing in Manville committed suicide. Is the campus implying that this student should have been evicted as soon as there were warning signs? How would it have obtained proof of illness (and to what standard), while still upholding our right to privacy? These are serious implications that must be clarified.

Our values as a campus community should include affordable graduate accommodation that matches the reality of graduate stipends and the ability to seek mental health care treatment without the fear of reprisal.

It’s time for the campus to alleviate, not compound, the barriers to scholarship and well-being faced by graduate students.

Clarke Knight is a second-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management studying forests and climate change.