This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
When Robert Kok moved to Salt Lake City five years ago to pursue his PhD in the philosophy of biology at the University of Utah, renting was still pretty affordable.
That changed. Rental prices rose just as Kok and his partner welcomed a third member into their family. Surviving off their meager incomes grew more difficult with skyrocketing rents and a baby.
Luckily, about two years ago they managed to secure a spot in the U.’s affordable graduate housing. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a complex called the “West Village” which cost just $980 a month.
Kok continued his research, which he described as, “focusing on different theoretical models for parasite research or parasite epidemiology,” as his partner worked part time at a preschool.
That stability came to an end on Oct. 21. They received an email informing the family that in August 2023 they’d have to move out. Additionally, 334 other apartments would be shut down as part of a phased closure and demolition of the old, increasingly decrepit, graduate and family student housing they had called home for the past two years.
“We can just barely afford what we’re affording now,” Kok said. “I just don’t see how I can move my family out and afford what’s out there at the moment.”
Sunnyside Apartments, new graduate and family housing, will open next August. There will be 565 “total rentable spaces.” A two-bedroom unit will cost $1,750 a month — a $770 increase from what Kok currently pays.
He is just one of many U. graduate students who won’t be able to afford the new housing on campus. Apartments available off campus are equally or more expensive. While a relatively small portion of the U.’s grad students live in the below-market apartments on campus, their plight sheds light on the precarity of students, especially those with families, attempting to survive off meager stipends in an increasingly unaffordable city.
“It’s an emotional toll,” Kok said. “How are we supposed to survive?”
Meanwhile, the West Village, East Village and Medical Plaza, built between 50 to 60 years ago, have served families and graduate students at the U. for generations. Loans taken out to build the complexes were paid off decades ago, explained Jennifer Reed, associate vice president of auxiliary services. Without debt payments to make, the U. opted to keep the apartments’ rents “artificially low.”
The complexes are now nearly impossible to maintain, Reed said. Plumbing is disintegrating — in one case a pipe burst over a student’s bed. The U. has had to put more and more students up in hotel rooms as major repairs are made. The buildings also do not comply with current seismic codes.
With all those factors in mind, a decade ago plans to eventually demolish and replace the apartments were set in motion, Reed said.
The notice on Oct. 31 marked an early part of that phased closure process — 208 apartments were already shuttered. By 2030, the Medical Towers and East and West Villages, which collectively counted 1,115 apartments, will likely be demolished.
For now, apartments in the Medical Plaza and sections of the West Villages are closing.
Some students living in those buildings can sign up for the waitlist to move into another one of the older buildings yet to be slated for demolition, but demand exceeds capacity.
The new apartments currently under construction were financed with a $126-million bond, which the university will repay over the next 30 years, Reed said. The U. must charge higher rates to pay off that debt, she said.
“It is likely there are some students that are going to have to go off campus because the new rates don’t work for their budget,” Reed said. “And that’s why we tried to give so much notice so that students had time to make those plans.”
She also noted that “the largest percentage of our students are renting off campus.” Roughly 490 graduate students are housed in University Student Apartments, while there are more than 8,000 students pursuing graduate degrees at the U.
“We’re committed to housing a certain percentage of this population of students,” Reed said. “And I think it’s a really great opportunity. But we understand that this transition period, from old to new, is difficult for a lot of students.”
Agonizing and organizing
Facing the loss of their affordable housing, grad students are organizing.
In a Nov. 1 forum, Reed addressed residents about the decision to close some of the apartments. The forum grew heated toward the end, as some students described the decision as “a slap in the face.”
“It’s a bit devastating for us,” another student said.
There’s some hope that administrators will have a change of heart and adjust rental rates for students finishing up their degrees.
“We hope that they’ll do something to help the students,” said Blake Billings, mayor of University Student Apartments resident council and a PhD student in chemical engineering.
He said the demolition of the 700 court in the West Village and the Medical Towers came as a surprise to students. “There are students there who were planning on paying the rent in that building for the entirety of their degree,” Billings said. “And now they’re looking at doubling their rent to move farther away from campus.”
A petition asking administrators to, in part, “limit the price differences to an affordable range based on the students’ incomes and stipends,” has circulated and meetings with U. administrators are in the works.
Ava Anjom and Mehdi Eskandari-Ghadi, who organized the petition, say they’ve received 158 signatures so far.
The pair shared some of the responses they received with the Tribune. “The new rental rates are unethical and will leave many grad students homeless,” one student wrote. Another shared that the new rent would be more than 60% of their income.
In December, Billings and other students will discuss the situation with a group of administrators, including university CFO Cathy Anderson; Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs; David Kieda, dean of the graduate school; and Reed.
“I think our administration is willing to listen to student concerns and then determine whether or not they can make a change to the decisions that have already been made regarding rental rates,” Reed said.
But, Reed continued, if the U. were to grandfather some graduate students into the new buildings at their older rental prices, this “provides a subsidy to some students that isn’t provided to others so we need to be careful about what sort of aid we’re providing based on circumstance.”
What about raising stipends?
“We’re trying to come up with a list of solutions,” Billings said. Increasing grad student stipends so they can actually afford rents on and off campus is one option.
Kok makes about $23,000 per academic year as a research assistant at the U.
About 2,500 graduates receive a tuition benefit, said U. Graduate School Dean David Kieda. That benefit includes “free base graduate tuition” and a stipend for teaching and research.
Kieda said the minimum stipend set by the U. is about $9,000 each fall and spring semester and $5,000 for summer. How much a graduate student is paid varies greatly by department, with STEM students tending to make more and humanities and social sciences students less.
After doing a quick calculation of rent, gas and insurance costs, Kieda estimated that graduate students making the minimum stipend have about $65 a week to live on.
Life for those making that minimum stipend, Kieda said, is not easy. “If you go to the hospital, there’s a $75 copay for the emergency room. So I get to choose between eating this week, or going to the hospital in an emergency.”
“We have to do better than that,” Kieda said. “We have to have more funds available and [give students] the ability to not live so close to the edge.”
He understands why the rental rates at the Sunnyside Apartments were set at market rates, and points to upping stipends as a potential way to ease financial stress for graduate students living both on and off campus.
Kieda is particularly worried about what the low stipends, paired with rising rents, will mean for first-generation or low-income college students’ access to graduate degrees.
Living off $24,000 a year is far easier if you have parents that can help out. For those that don’t, they can take out loans, but students living on lower incomes also tend to be more debt averse, Kieda said.
“If you don’t give students enough money, they’re going to go out and work some other job, which has nothing to do with their teaching or their research. I’d rather have them do the research or the teaching.”
Billings said with his $38,000 a year stipend, he is “more blessed than most.” His apartment complex is yet to be scheduled for demolition and he’ll continue paying a lower rate. Even though he’s luckier than others, with two children and a third on the way, his family must be cautious with their pocketbook.
They take advantage of free programs on campus for entertainment and enrolled in WIC for help with buying staples like yogurt, eggs and cheese. “Most of my friends are on WIC if they have kids,” Billings said.
He’s trying to complete his degree without acquiring any student loans — “I don’t know if it would be a reality if we had the higher rent,” he said. And if loans were required to complete his education, “I probably would have gone to a different school,” Billings said.
Kieda said he’s spoken with the CFO of the U., and students like Billings are also speaking with administrators about raising stipends, or looking into housing subsidies. Then, on Monday at 5 p.m., U. spokesperson Rebecca Walsh emailed The Tribune stating that “university leaders have decided to establish a task force to look at graduate student compensation.” The task force will report its findings next year, Walsh wrote.
That leaves students like Kok hoping that by next Aug. 1, when they’re forced to leave their apartment, some solution will have materialized.
For now, Kok said, “I have to compartmentalize.”