University Village rent strike pushes for rent forgiveness, faces struggles over enrollment, evictions

Image of rent strike poster
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Residents of University Village in Albany, or UVA, have been pushing for rent forgiveness, engaging in a rent strike that has been occurring for about one year. The advocacy for rent forgiveness comes in light of the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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An approximately yearlong rent strike led by residents of University Village in Albany, or UVA, is continuing to push for rent forgiveness in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since April 2020, the UVA Tenants Union has been coordinating the rent strike as part of its campaign for the cancellation of rent payments, according to the UVA Tenants Union website.

A survey conducted by the UVA Tenants Union in April found that about 95% of UVA residents were rent-burdened, meaning they were spending more than 30% of their income on rent, and more than 85% of residents said their ability to afford rent had been or would be impacted by the pandemic.

As of December 2020, 24% of UVA residents were behind on rental payments, according to a member of the UVA Tenants Union who wished to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns.

Chloë Piazza, a campus graduate student living in UVA, noted that UVA tenants have been struggling with rent for a long time.

“When the pandemic hit, it was the cherry on top of long standing struggle for affordable living,” Piazza said in an email. “Many families faced increased costs, childcare responsibilities and lost income. When rent was so hard to make to begin with, these extra challenges made it impossible.”

UVA Tenants Union negotiations with UC Berkeley, further struggles over evictions

The UVA Tenants Union succeeded in negotiating with campus administration to postpone the rent increase originally scheduled for June 2020, according to Sam Maull, a campus graduate student and parent living in UVA. However, Maull said campus administrators have informed the UVA Tenants Union that rent will increase by 4% yearly beginning in 2021.

Campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said these yearly rent increases will begin July 1 and will continue until 2024, as of press time.

The rent strike’s demands to UC Berkeley Housing include the cancellation of the planned rent increases, rent forgiveness for UVA residents and a commitment to no evictions for residents with rent that is past due, according to the UVA Tenants Union website

According to Piazza, the UVA Tenants Union has collaborated with the Berkeley Tenants Union, cost-of-living-adjustment mutual aid organizers and residents in UC housing across the state, among other groups.

“We are committed to keeping our students and student families at University Village Albany (UVA) in their homes during these trying times,” Ratliff said in an email. “Students who cannot pay rent to the campus during the pandemic will not be evicted for non-payment.”

Ratliff added that it is vital for residents to reach out to UC Berkeley Housing promptly to find solutions for their past-due rent payments.

According to Maull, however, in calls between the UVA Tenants Union and campus administration, administrators have allegedly “refused point-blank” to guarantee no evictions for students with past due rent.

Additionally, the anonymous member of the UVA Tenants Union alleged that campus administration has been using bureaucratic tactics to “pressure” residents to pay rent. They gave examples of registration holds and blocks on student accounts for those behind on rental payments.

“The University’s commitment to not evict students is nothing above what is already required of them according to law. By willfully creating barriers to accessing the library, University Health Services, or even registering for classes, the university is essentially retaliating against students for non-payment,” the anonymous source alleged in an email.

Students face difficulties with class enrollment, campus institutes short-term assistance

The opening of class registration is often accompanied by drops in rent strike numbers, as some students fear past-due rent payments will prevent them from enrolling in classes, according to the anonymous source.

According to Ratliff, no registration or enrollment holds were placed on students as a result of past-due rent for the spring 2021 semester.

A UVA student-parent representative, nonetheless, has been handling a large volume of cases where residents with past-due rent payments have faced alleged enrollment holds, according to Maull. For each individual case, the representative has to communicate with campus administrators to lift the hold on the account.

“It’s a completely unnecessary step, it takes time and it scares students who think they won’t be able to enroll,” Maull said.

According to the anonymous source, campus administration’s proposed payment plan presented to the UVA Tenants Union earlier this semester included a section titled “Failure to Make Monthly Payment,” which stated that if students missed rental payments, they would be ineligible for fall enrollment and future housing.

While campus previously discussed and offered a 25% monthly repayment plan in February 2021, after the passage of state law SB 91, campus is now aligning its plans with the eviction protections the bill provides, according to Ratliff. As a result, students must submit a Declaration of COVID-19-Related Financial Distress in order to be eligible for these protections, Ratliff added.

Maull added that UC Berkeley has sent emails to residents with past-due rent warning that their accounts may be placed with third-party collection agencies to collect their past-due rent.

According to Ratliff, campus administration is committed to “working with students on an individual basis” to secure additional funding for rent repayment through measures such as financial aid and the Basic Needs Holistic Fund, an emergency funding source. 

The fund can provide students who have emergency housing needs with short-term assistance for one month of rental payments, according to the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Center website.

Maull noted, however, that campus’s individual-targeted assistance can undermine collective bargaining power. He added that of the approximately 800 households in UVA, there were only about 70 that had not maxed out their financial aid, so financial aid could not work as a solution to the difficulties faced by residents.

“Student families are often returning students,” Maull said. “They’ve taken a hit to their income to do that; they’ve had to put their lives on hold. The threat that they’re facing, of being evicted, of having their credit ruined, of not completing their degrees that they’ve sacrificed so much for — it’s an existential threat.”

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.