Following COLA strikes, graduate students experience housing struggles

photo of a COLA protest
Ireland Wagner/Staff
Students march through UC Berkeley campus in support of the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, movement. Graduate students fight for higher wages and discuss struggles with student hosuing.

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In the wake of cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, strikes for increased graduate student wages across the UC system, pay remains close to California minimum wage, and additional COVID-19 stressors are making housing searches difficult for some graduate students.

Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student researcher, or GSR, in the department of materials science and engineering, said he has moved three times in the last year, both due to pandemic-related reasons and limited campus housing options for graduate students.

Graduate campus housing costs are often higher than market-rate housing costs, according to Chowdhury, and largely unaffordable on graduate students’ wages, especially for single students who cannot live in family student housing at University Village, Albany.

According to Graduate Division spokesperson Kathleen Aycock, campus is currently working to receive a final certificate of occupancy for the Intersection Apartments, an independent-living option located at 3800 San Pablo Ave. in Emeryville.

The apartments will be available to single graduate students and postdoctoral students. Rent starts at about $1,335 per month for smaller units, and studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments will be available, according to the Intersection Apartments website.

“Providing additional student housing to help meet demand is one of the Chancellor’s top priorities,” Aycock said in an email.

The UC Board of Regents also approved a project to build additional graduate student housing on the Gill Tract near University Village, Aycock added.

Graduate students are able to seek mental health support through the Tang Center and graduate student wellness specialist Amy Honigman, according to Aycock. Students can also seek confidential assistance for campus-related conflicts, such as issues with their working environments, through the Ombuds Office for Students and Postdoctoral Appointees.

Andrew Barbour, former doctoral candidate in the campus English department, said Graduate Student Instructor wages are at the level of “subsistence poverty,” noting GSR wages are similar.

“GSR wages are criminally low, right around California minimum wage,” Barbour alleged in an email. “At the very least, (campus) should pay graduate students $20+ per hour to treat them as skilled professionals.

Chowdhury noted it is up to individual departments to decide which “step” of employment GSRs receive compensation at.

He added that in his experience, people generally agree that no more than 33% of income should be spent on rent. Chowdhury allocates upward of 50% of his wages toward rent and said this percentage is still less than many others he knows.

“There are some of us who make significantly less than others and some who make more,” Chowdhury said. “That doesn’t mean any of us are getting paid particularly well. I don’t think any GSR at (UC Berkeley) makes enough to live comfortably in the Bay Area.”

Contact Anishi Patel at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @anishipatel.