Goodbye Affordable Housing, Hello Government Assistance: UC San Diego Graduate Students May Qualify for HUD Section 8 Housing

May 7, 2019 by Petia Yanchulova Merica-Jones

This headline should not be news since UC San Diego graduate students have been inadequately-paid for some time now. However, students have not had to venture into government assistance programs in the past in significant numbers. The opportunity, however, has finally arrived! HUD’s Section 8 program offers housing assistance by increasing “affordable housing choices for very low-income households by allowing families to choose privately owned rental housing”. To be eligible for the program, “the family’s income may not exceed 50% of the median income for the county or metropolitan area in which the family chooses to live“. The HUD metric which defines the amount of the subsidy is based on the amount of a household’s/person’s income which goes towards housing where if this is more than 30%, houisng is considered unaffordable. The Section 8 program gives vouchers to qualifying individuals in the amount which would be the difference between their rent and the 30% of their income threshold. For example, if a person earns $3000/month and their rent is $2000/month, since 30% of their income would be $1000/month, the government subsidezes their rent by issuing a $1000 voucher to be paid to the landlord. Pretty awesome! The person/family can choose where they live as long as the landlord (a private company or individual) participates in the HUD Section 8 program (there are plenty such landlords).

UC San Diego graduate students qualify for the Section 8 program by a wide margin. Per US Census statistics, the median San Diego County household salary is ~$71,000/yr, or ~5,900/month. The median UCSD graduate student salary statistic is hard to come by, but reasonable estimates can be made. Based on conservative estimates, it turns out that the UCSD administration can allow the (50%-employed) graduate student teaching assistant (TA) salary for 9-months at $21,300/yr ($2360/month) to increase by another $14,000/yr – a whopping and unimaginable 66% increase – and the graduate students would still be eligible for the government subsidy! If, on the other hand, a student works as a 50% TA for 12 months out of the year for which they would earn $28,300/yr, then the UCSD administration doesn’t have to go as deeply into its pockets – it can increase the TA salary by a modest $6500/yr (23%) to keep students as low-income earners so they can qualify for the Section 8 HUD program. But without even moving a finger, the UCSD administration has already set its students up for success with access to govenrment subsidies. This is especially due to the fact that a large number of UCSD students are paid at rates well below the $2360/month, where some of its most brilliant and creative minds in departments such as Music, Theater and Dance, Visual Arts, Philosophy, Literature, and History, get paid $1678/month, while 25% TAs get paid $1180/month.

Uncharted Territory of Government Assistance. We can attribute the unexplored territory by UCSD grads of low-income government-subsidized housing to the fact that UCSD graduate students have had the privilege to comfortably live in the bubble of ‘affordable UCSD graduate student housing‘ which has been usually known to offer at-cost student housing to accommodate the low salaries. This has been traditionally the value offered by UCSD graduate student housing: the vast majority of students have been able to live close to school and work, and avoid not only the commute, but also the cost of the increasingly unaffordable San Diego market. As a matter of fact, there was a time when all UCSD graduate students were able to live on campus, and quite affordably at this. This was a time when a UCSD graduate student could potentially begin to pay off college loans (what college loans?) and perhaps even start to save for a downpayment on a modest house.

Consider yourself lucky since you live in special times: The ‘affordable UCSD graduate student housing‘ bubble has just burst! Hopefully you weren’t standing near the mess which surrounded the explosion. But if you were, you are even luckier to have been a part of this historic and unprecedented fiasco. With their most-recently implemented rental rates, the UCSD Housing, Dinining, and Hospitality department (HDH) has wiped out any hope the UCSD graduate students had to stay below the 30% affordability threshold set by the US Government whose Department of Housing and Urban Development says that:

Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. 

The Scorpion’s Tail. As can be seen in Figure 1, if choosing to live on campus, the UCSD graduate students would on average be paying about 34% of their income. This number is still kept at bay thanks to some still present, but increasingly rare, good ‘ol campus grad housing complexes such as South and Central Mesa, Coast Apts, and Rita Atkinson Apts. As fate would have it, all those will be wiped out as graduate housing in 2020-2021. Prior to 2016, the on-campus housing trends had been relatively stable – at least when compared to the student salaries – although at least since 2010 for some reason they were still above the national, state and local averages. Then, in 2016 UCSD graduate housing costs kissed even the absurd San Diego rental market goodbye and headed into a stratoshphere of their own.

Figure 1. The UCSD graduate student housing cost as a fraction of the UCSD graduate student teaching assistant income. Data sources at bottom of article.

Something happened in 2016. As far as student housing is concerned, the rent-to-income trends began to creep up dangerously close to the 30% line as in Figure 1. Beside 2016 being the year by which the relatively newly hired UCSD Chief Financial Officer Mr. Pierre Ouillet (overseeing HDH) would have become aquanited with the lay of the land and come into a student rent- and tuition-raising maturity of his own, perhaps something happened at the UC Regents level that year, or in years just prior, to cause this marked departure in the income-to-housing trends. One may look at the rosy and cosy public relations picture Mr. Ouillet paints by saying that UCSD “embark[ed] on a plan to significantly increase [their] graduate housing and amenities to meet the needs of a much larger population of students, not just the lucky few living with us today.” This lofty and much needed plan due to the long grad housing waitlist has had the following effects where the poisonous tail begins to rise:

  • On July 1, 2017, Coast Apartments residents (blue curves in Figure 2) saw their rent increase by more than 6% because HDH pursuaded the UCSD ARCHAC housing advisory committee representatives to absorb the HDH-proposed hefty rental rate increases for graduate housing by singling out the Coast community for its location by the ocean. Little did ARCHAC suspect (the plots are not hard to make) that Coast had already been singled out.
  • Also in 2017 the idyllic North Mesa housing complex came to the end of its days when residents were asked to move out due to imminent demolition of their complex in favor of the shiny new Mesa Nueva. The way the residents were asked to move out is a story on its own to be addressed in a coming post. The adjacent West Mesa soon followed to slide to oblivion.
  • In spring 2018 the ARCHAC committee was subjected to implementing a brutal shakedown of the UCSD graduate students: HDH asked the committee to approve various grad student housing fee options on top of the already steep rent increases (see Fig. 2) to generate additional revenue to “balance the HDH budget“. A blog post dedicated to this is coming as well.
  • When in 2018 Coast Apts residents experienced an identical as in 2017 where they saw their rent go up by 9-10% after the 6% 2018 increase, the residents refused to continue to suffer due to the ARCHAC and the HDH faulty arguments not based on any meaningful data or analysis.
  • Then in November 2018 graduate students were dealt another blow: their beloved Single Graduate Apartments and Rita Atkinson Apartments were presented by HDH as proposed to be transfered to the UCSD undergraduate students whose wait lists HDH was trying to accommodate. Subsequently, they were transfered to the UCSD undergraduate students by HDH without any discussion of the “proposal” or the feedback HDH so genuinely seemed to solicit to all the residents who heard about their idea via their email.
  • In spring 2019, the UCSD graduate students’ housing concerns were flushed down the drain due to the continuously misleading HDH budgeting practices which played out in their full glory in February and March 2019. Although pressured by HDH to settle for one of a number of unacceptable rental rates proposals put forth by UCSD Housing, the ARCHAC committee took the liberty to come up with proposals on their own, where one supported by a 6-0-2 vote on March 28, 2019 was that rates increase by 0% in 2019. The events were reflected in two UCSD student newspaper articles on, 1) the ARCHAC rent freeze vote, and 2) the student rent freeze march.
  • HDH made sure the drain plugged up with students’ and ARCHAC’s growing concerns was cleared when it overruled the ARCHAC rent freeze vote on April 2, 2019 with a controversial, miselading and contradictory email it sent to the thousands of graduate student housing residents.
  • Goodbye Earth! The brand new student housing construction’s starting rates are somewhere in the outer layers of the UCSD grad student abilities’ stratoshpere since they start at $915/month for one room in a 6-bedroom apartment. Even in the UTC and La Jolla area students can find rooms for $700-$800/months which they only have to share with one or two other people.
  • Hello Undergraduates. Undergrads, unlike grads, generally have little to do with monthly salary money coming into and out of their bank accounts. Therefore they will live at apartments costing $915/month and even more since they already do this on campus. (UCSD undergraduates pay ~$900/month to share a 3-bd dorm room, ~$1000/month for to share a room with one other person, and ~$1100 to have a room by themselves.
Figure 2. UCSD graduate student housing annual percentage change.
Data links:

New Mesas residents (Mesa Nueva, Nuevo East and West), you are first on the list for Section 8 government Assistance. Remember how Mr. Ouillet was saying that UCSD had embarked upon a new model where they are building a ton of new expensive housing and he is asking the UCSd graduate students to foot the bill with their $2000/month salaries? Right now. Even though the loan terms are for 30-35 years? He confirmed UCSD is proceeding with the plan, “If so we would take a huge amount of debt, which we would have to repay through student rents in a model where we avoid putting the burden of paying for new construction on just one group of students.” What Mr. Ouillet is referring to is that his plan was for all residents to pitch in – those in old and those in new housing, so that we wouldn’t see the discrepancies in Figure 2 where one community is paying (significantly) more for housing than another. Apparently Mr. Ouillet and Ms. Hemlata Jhaveri, HDH’s Executive Director, didn’t get to coordinate because Ms. Jhaveri says in her April 2, 2019, email to the UCSD grad housing residents, “HDH put forth a housing rate proposal… Based on the input received, we are moving forward with capping rate increases to the older units at a 3 percent inflation, in line with salary increases for teaching assistants. This means that Nuevo East and Nuevo West rates will need to cover interest and principal mortgage payments. … All rates will continue to remain at least 20 percent below market value.” It sounds like the ARCHAC committee was so convincing that even the CFO’s fianancial plan for student housing rental rates was scratched. Beside the aparent contradiction in the rent models by Mr. Ouillet and Ms. Jhaveri, the statements that all rates are remaining 20% below market value are not only incorrect, they are an inadequate measure to compare the income of UCSD graduate students to the income of not only San Diego, but especially the neighborhoods of Unviersity Town Center and La Jolla where UCSD is located.

Back to Government Subsidies. 20% below market or not, at the end of the day you have to look into your wallet and see how thin it is so you can proceed accordingly. One may ask questions along at least two lines at this point: 1) Why has the Government chosen a seemingly arbitrary round percentage at which to set some affordability threshold; is there any real value to this threshold; what is the research supporting this decision? 2) Was the UCSD graduate student houisng bubble offering truly affordable housing sustainable, or was it artificial in that it was subsidized by some campus, state or external sources? Whether the latter was the case or not, is it really inevitable that UCSD graduate student housing costs have to increase, as Mr. Ouillet has said in his email, and also at ARCHAC meetings where he charismatically appealed to the ARCHAC housing committee to help him out and get as much money out of the students as it could.

The detailed and research-backed answers to the first question will be explored in an upcoming post. The evident answers to why 30% seems to be important are presented here. In parallel with the 2016 UCSD student housing jump into a potential abyss of no return (who has heard of rent resets!?), the UCSD campus has seen an explosion in the campus-level programs offered to the UCSD students – graduate and undergraduate – meant to support their physiological, emotional, psychological, academic, and social well-being. Here are the trends:

  • Coincidentally, the Basic Needs Hub was established at UCSD in 2015/2016 where they boast on their front page, “1 in 4 UC San Diego students reported in UCUES 2014 that they “somewhat to very often” skip meals to save money. The Triton Food Pantry opened in 2015 to respond!” The Hub states: “… it is our highest goal to serve students with respect, offer referrals to on and off campus resources based on their Basic Needs, to increase accessibility to food, housing, and financial resources.” The Hub is so needed that it needs to increase in size physically and also in terms of the services it offers.
  • The Triton Food Pantry and Cal Fresh are programs are particularly aimed at offering students food resources.
  • The UCSD Counseling And Psychological Services (CAPS) have increased their operations dramatically.
  • Students are aquiring pets as emotional support animals in ever-increasing numbers.
  • Potentially there are other effects since per the 2014 UCSD GPSES survey results financial burdens are one of the biggest causes quoted by students to influence their consideration of quitting grad school, where 40% of the students who have considered quitting grad school at UCSD have done so due to finances.  The same survey shows that housing is the largest expense which poses moderate (for ~70% of respondents) and considerable (for ~30% of respondents) challenges to UCSD grad students.  The survey finds that the single largest factor determining overall student quality of life is finances.  Here is the 2018 UCSD Physics students’ petition for a higher student stipend level which summarizes these results in the text and in Figure 1.  Figure 2 shows how when compared to other similarly ranked Physics programs in the nation, the UCSD Physics program pays its students towards the bottom.

What is causing all this chaos and struggle? One article I have recently read by a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, offers some answers:

What do we do now? Since apparently raising the grad housing rental rates is innevitable, we will propose to UCSD’s HDH department that they register as a Section 8 HUD housing provider, and that potentially they use the already existing student waitlist to ask the government to subsidize the students’ campus rent.

We, the graduate students of UCSD, were set up for success by the UCSD administration as HUD Section 8 government subsidies candidates! Hooray! On with the rent increases!

Figures data sources:

1. UCSD.  This is the average UCSD graduate housing rent accounting for the number of the different types of units considering when they go offline and come online as percent of the TA (50% employment) salary.
  • a) HDH historical rental rates data + 2019-2020 HDH rates
  • b) TA salary data (UCSD Grad Division)
  • Here are the calculations based on 1a) and 1b) producing the red line.
  • c) The projected 2020-2021 rates are based on rate increases identical to those in 2019-2021 while removing housing which will not be available to graduate students in 2020-2021 and adding new housing coming online.
  • 2. San Diego, California, and US compilation:
  • Data for these figure is taken from sources quoted on the page which include:
  • a) San Diego median San Diego County income presented by the US Census Bureau.
  • b) The US Census Bureau American Community Survey
  • c) US Bureau of Labor Statistics
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