After grad students speak out, U. offers concessions to those losing their housing

The University of Utah is offering a temporary discount and assembling a graduate student stipend task force.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The aging Medical Plaza Towers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

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.

The graduate students at the University of Utah were dismayed when they got the email last Oct. 21.

The U. planned to close several affordable, run-down, apartment complexes in the summer of 2023. Their options were to try to get a spot in one of the older buildings that weren’t closing yet, request a spot in the new grad housing currently under construction or try to find an affordable rental off campus.

Students were further rattled when they learned the rents for the new graduate housing, the “Sunnyside Apartments,” would be nearly double. The rents were set in order to service the debt taken on to build the new apartments, according to administrators.

“There are students there who were planning on paying the rent in that building for the entirety of their degree,” Blake Billings, mayor of University Student Apartments resident council and a PhD student in chemical engineering previously told the Tribune. “And now they’re looking at doubling their rent to move farther away from campus.”

In response to the outcry, the U. announced it is offering single grad students losing their housing a 20% discount on rent in Sunnyside studio apartments — bringing the monthly cost down from $1,300 to $1,040. “I think providing that concession is going to be really helpful for those that really want to stay on campus rather than go out to market,” said Jennifer Reed, associate vice president of auxiliary services.

That 20% discount will only last for one year. If impacted students want to stay a second year the discount will be a more modest 10%.

“Long story short,” Reed said, “[the discount] ended up being what we felt as an institution we could absorb.”

The time between the U.’s initial announcement for renters to vacate and the decision to offer the rent discount was filled with work toward communication and compromise. Students organized. They signed petitions. In the end, a small victory came: An imperfect but more affordable housing solution for struggling grad students.

Rising rents stress student stipends

The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake City is now roughly $1,400 a month according to Zillow. The rent for a one-bedroom in the soon-to-open Sunnyside Apartments will be $1,490.

Graduate students’ stipends have not kept up. In November, one graduate student told The Tribune he was making just $23,000 per academic year as a research assistant at the U.

For grad students with the lowest stipends, the new rental rates would eat up nearly all of their salary.

The situation seemed bleak — but since October, the grad students and U. administration found a way to compromise.

Billings and other graduate students started reaching out to administrators soon after the October announcement. Over the winter months, the resident council met with administrators and fellow students. Dozens signed a petition asking the U. to “limit the price differences to an affordable range based on the students’ incomes and stipends.”

The resident council sent “A Joint Resolution Supporting a Decreased Cost of Graduate Student and Family Housing on Campus” and the administration talked about setting up a task force.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Blake Billings, a University of Utah chemical engineering PhD student, who also serves as mayor of the graduate housing resident council, in the University Student Apartments courtyard, Nov. 23, 2022.

“We have to have more funds available and [give students] the ability to not live so close to the edge,” David Kieda, dean of the graduate school, told The Tribune in November.

Finding a compromise

Displaced students with families have the option to move to Cedar apartments — older units that aren’t yet slated to close and cost just $980 for a two-bedroom unit. Plus, the U. promised to give students a full year before announcing any further building closures. “We are intending on phasing out the rest of those Cedar buildings by 2030,” Reed said.

About 70 graduate students with families are opting to move to the Cedar apartments.

The announcement is a “win,” Billings said, but that once all the older apartments are eventually closed and demolished, there won’t be any remaining affordable options for graduate students.

“It’s not a long-term solution,” Billings said. “Stipends are our longer-term solution that can help a lot more students.”

(University of Utah) A rendering of the Sunnyside Apartments, which will open Aug. 2023.

To that end, the U. created a “Graduate Student Stipend Task Force.” The task force plans to present U. President Taylor Randall with a report of “long-term recommendations regarding graduate-student stipend levels, benefits, fees, housing costs, and other critical items,” by the end of the 2023 spring semester.

“Really the majority of our graduate students live off campus,” Reed said. “And so we don’t want to favor one group over another largely because of a lottery selection for housing.” The task force aims to help that broader community of more than 8,000 graduate students that must face Salt Lake’s hot rental market.

Reed said the task force will come up with very specific recommendations — some that may require approval from the Utah Legislature.

Ava Anjom, a Ph.D. in the Department of Educational Psychology and one of the organizers of the petition, wrote via email that temporary measures (offering priority in Cedar housing and a 20% reduction of Sunnyside studios) were a good step forward but “not an actual solution to the larger problem, which is SLC has become unsustainably expensive for graduate students.”

However, Anjom wrote she was glad “a workforce is organized to specifically look at how departmental stipends match the SLC rental rates.”

The tradeoff between a decrepit apartment where the pipes semi-frequently burst and affordability may no longer be an option for those lucky lottery winners, but perhaps a broader change in how graduate students are paid is coming.