Student Housing Insecurity Town Hall Brings Activists and UCI Administration Together

ASUCI’s Housing Commission held its first Town Hall meeting yesterday in the Student Center, where both undergraduate and graduate students shared testimonials and perspectives on student housing insecurity. The meeting was followed by a rare opportunity for students to ask questions of housing administration, starting a dialogue that will be necessary for the Commission to work successfully towards solutions to housing insecurity at UCI.

Present housing administrators stressed that they do not receive funding from the university to complete housing projects, which prevents them from doing everything they would like to do for students. However, they were open to students’ suggestions for potential solutions.

A graduate student from the audience suggested a plan to “build up” taller buildings instead of spreading out in order to conserve space for parking, and emphasized a need for a working relationship between Student Housing and the Irvine City Council.

“I know the city relocates their homeless, but students are not the typical homeless, so if we build a working relationship with City Council, there is a possibility that we can fix this,” the student said.

“We are here to talk about your experiences, and we want to go back to our meetings and share your reality,” said Fred Lipscomb, interim director of Student Housing, who said that like many students, he experienced financial hardships when he was younger. “I know what it is to be in your situation,” he said.

“This issue affects us all alike,” said Cassius Rutherford, head of the Housing Commission. “We are here to understand this issue from all sides.”

Lipscomb continued to discuss the struggles Student Housing has when allocating funds to housing projects.

“Because the university does not give us funds, we build what we can afford. In order to pay the debt and mortgage to build facilities not for profit, we charge [in rent] what it costs to build and maintain facilities and save for future projects,” he said.  

According to Lipscomb, Student Housing had to hire American Campus Communities (ACC) to take on the additional debt of building Camino Del Sol, Vista Del Campo, Vista Del Campo Norte and Puerta del Sol “so housing prices would not rise beyond belief.”

Many students still believe that rent for those properties is too high. Rent for Camino del Sol, for example, is above $1,000 a month per student for a four-bedroom, 4.5-bath apartment.

Talor Williams, a member of the Student Progressive Alliance, said, “We need emergency housing, a network available to house every student who needs it, and we need to make housing more affordable. The law does not decide what’s unjust. We do.”

When students asked for administration’s housing budget to be reworked into more accessible language, Lipscomb said that administration does not currently have a plan for this, but it is something they will take into consideration.

Another housing administrator who asked to remain anonymous said that Student Housing gives presentations in every housing community each spring quarter for students interested in the budget.

Students gave testimonies of their struggles with housing insecurity and food insecurity along with a plea to administration: “Okay, now you’re listening to us — so what are you going to do?”

Students giving testimony asked to remain anonymous, in order to protect their privacy.

One student, an undocumented freshman, spoke about her difficulties with financial aid and housing.

“Financial aid was a big factor in where I should go [to school]. I had all the aid I was supposed to have, but a technical issue caused me to not have the aid I was promised,” she said.

By the time she had figured out her finances with the university, housing was limited, and her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application was experiencing complications.  She was able to renew it for a fee of $500, which caused her and her family even more financial distress. “It was a lot to go through as a freshman,” she said.

Another student, also affected by DACA and its recent repeal, posed a perspective to the audience: “How would DACA students afford housing when they don’t have access to jobs anymore? Sometimes it comes down to ‘do I have a roof over my head today, or do I eat’?”

A June 2017 study of housing insecurity at UCI stated that 40 percent of graduate student income goes to housing. The affordable rate, according to the same survey, is 30 percent.

20 percent of graduate students are food insecure as a result of their need to choose between rent and a meal, and half say that their well-being has been negatively affected by their finances.

That was the case for one graduate student who shared his testimony. While he was coming to campus to teach classes and run student groups, he was living in half a house that his friend allowed him to stay in while the rest was being built. He slept on a mattress, and sometimes ate only one meal a day.

“Living in Irvine…there’s a veneer around that, so it’s hard to conceptualize our situation. Homeless in Irvine? What we need to do is expand our definition of homelessness, so instead of people saying to us, ‘Oh you have your education paid for, you should be lucky to have your university…’ No. You should demand your basic rights,” said another student.

“The work will never be done unless we have a safe space to start a conversation about these issues,” said ASUCI President Lydia Natoolo at the Town Hall.

President of the College Democrats at UCI, Aya Labanieh, concurred.

“I know it’s difficult to talk about this every year, multiple times a year,” said Labanieh, “but the purpose of this meeting is to get allies. We are trying to get supporters to listen to us.”