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University officials are worried about graduate housing crunch

Nancy Tsai knew from experience that the housing situation for graduate students living off campus was bleak.

But the doctoral student in mechanical engineering didn't know just how bleak until she conducted an informal survey last summer of graduate student experiences in off-campus apartment hunting.

Approximately 90 graduate students who did not receive fall quarter housing assignments and 16 students who just wanted to voice their concerns about housing responded to the survey, which Tsai conducted by e-mail.

One of the more startling findings was that several students said they were considering taking a second job or taking out a loan in order to meet their cost of living requirements. One student reported having to take a leave of absence from her program for one quarter to earn money because she could not afford living off campus on the stipend she received at Stanford.

In a written report summarizing the findings, Tsai urged university administrators to take immediate steps to remedy the situation. "For Stanford to continue as a quality research institute," she wrote, "the university must consider ways to improve a graduate student's quality of life."

Her message came across loud and clear.

A group of key university officials has been brainstorming since the summer for ways to help solve the current graduate student housing crunch that has left a record number of students who sought on-campus housing this year to fend for themselves.

"Everybody in the administration is aware of the crisis character of this situation," said Tom Wasow, associate dean of graduate policy and a member of the group that has been exploring the housing issue since the summer. "It is something that we are very concerned about and we are trying to formulate plans to help alleviate it as quickly as we can in a responsible manner."

Other members of the group include Tim Warner, vice provost for budget and auxiliaries management; Keith Guy, director of housing and dining services; Michael Rosenthal, associate vice provost for capital planning and management; David Neuman, university architect; and James Montoya, vice provost and dean of student affairs. At some point in the future, graduate students also will be involved in the conversations, officials said.

There has been a growing concern on the part of faculty members, who fear the soaring rental and housing prices in Silicon Valley will begin to drive prospective graduate students away from Stanford.

"It's not just graduate students who have come to me to complain," Wasow said. "There is a sense among a lot of faculty that we are losing some of the graduate students who we would really like to come here to other universities because they look at the cost of living here and say to themselves, 'I can't live on Stanford's stipend in that area.' "

According to Tsai's survey, students sometimes have to search for months to find housing and they wind up having to pay anywhere from 50 to 150 percent of their student incomes on rent.

David Aaron Krieger, a fourth-year graduate student in the applied physics department, says that he, for one, will no longer encourage prospective students to come to Stanford. "I'll advise friends to go somewhere else, all other things being equal, since a lot of their free time and money will go toward housing," he said.

Krieger was denied housing for the fall after having lived on campus for three years, moving to a different location each year. Now he shares an apartment with a friend and commutes to campus on his bicycle.

Not only has the move been expensive, he has found the social, psychological and academic problems associated with moving off campus to be particularly irksome. "I don't live near my colleagues or many of my friends so it is much harder to meet people for dinner or to hang out," he said. "I spend over an hour a day commuting, time that could be spent studying."

The university can accommodate about 9,200 students in campus housing, which includes about 92 percent of its undergraduates and 46 percent of its graduate students. Although a record number of graduate students who wanted to live on campus were turned down this year, Guy pointed out that Stanford was able to meet its housing policies of guaranteeing housing units for all first-year graduate students and students with children who have been at Stanford four years or fewer and who have applied by a certain deadline, and agreed to be placed anywhere on campus.

Last May, 3,884 graduate students entered the housing lottery compared to 3,143 the previous year. A total of 591 students remained unhoused after a second round of assignments was held in July, more than double the number of students who remained unhoused after the same lottery in 1996. While there were 43 graduate vacancies left after a "walk-in" attended by 90 students at the beginning of fall quarter, the rooms that were not taken tended to be located in areas that many students deem less desirable, such as in a basement, so they opted to take their chances and search for housing elsewhere.

According to a recent San Jose Mercury News article, the average rent in Palo Alto has gone up 33 percent in the last three years, with a 20 percent increase in the last year alone. A glance at the classified section of a local paper shows that one bedroom apartments in the Palo Alto area rent for between $900 and $1,200.

Considering the average graduate student stipend is between $1,200 and $1,600, this is a flat-out impossibility for most students, says Goldberry Long, a second-year Stegner Fellow in creative writing (fiction), who is a member of the Graduate Student Council.

Sharing an apartment with a roommate isn't much better, Long notes. "If you look at the stipends, those rents are still much more than the recommended 25 percent of monthly income," she said.

To make matters worse, she adds, the occupancy rate in the area is close to 100 percent. "Even if someone can afford an apartment on the Peninsula, it's going to be hard to find," she said.

In the past, students who wanted to live close to campus could find cheaper housing in East Palo Alto, Long said. But now, rents have increased there too. "Of the ten students in my class," Long said, "only three of us live in the immediate area. The other seven live in San Francisco, which had more available housing at a cheaper rate. This means they have to commute, of course, which means that they are much less a part of the Stanford community, which is a loss to everyone."

Even if graduate students manage to find affordable housing, Long said, they constantly worry that their landlords are going to slap them with huge rent increases. Jeff Zacks, a graduate student in psychology, recently returned from his honeymoon to find that the Menlo Park one-bedroom cottage where he lived had been sold. The new owner increased the rent from $1,000 to $1,900, forcing Zacks and his wife to look for a new place to live. They eventually moved to a one-bedroom unit in Redwood City, where they pay a monthly rent of $1,300.

Many students who are living in housing close to Stanford feel so fortunate to have found a place nearby that they refrain from calling their landlords to get things fixed because they fear repair costs will come back to haunt them in the form of a whopping rent increase.

"I have the landlord from hell, but with this housing market, finding a place, especially with a cat, is next to impossible," said a graduate student in biology who lives in a cottage behind a house in Palo Alto.

After a roof repair, the landlord raised the rent by $200 a month. "I deal with her now by not asking for anything," said the student, who asked not to be identified. "I think what tenants are dealing with off campus is horrible. I have already been to legal counseling twice. The landlords have a lot of power right now."

Some solutions to the housing crunch that are being explored by university officials include building more graduate housing on campus, buying or leasing property off campus to rent or sublet to students, increasing graduate student stipends and reviewing current graduate student housing assignment policies.

But nothing has been decided on any of these matters, said Wasow, who stressed that these suggestions are just preliminary ideas that are being discussed.

One of the attractions of building more housing on campus or acquiring property off campus is that both are long-term investments that eventually pay for themselves, Wasow said. Building on campus seems to be preferable, he explained, because it makes more economic sense and would reduce traffic while fostering a sense of community among graduate students.

But the decision to add more housing on campus is not as easy as one would think. If the Board of Trustees, for example, were to approve such a proposal, it would then have to pass through various local and county regulatory agencies, a process that can take several years to complete, Wasow explained. "It's far from being the case that we can say, "Oh, we own the land, let's slap up a building here," he said.

Another consideration has to do with the law of supply and demand, Guy said. "The problem I think for us is that we don't know whether this is a phenomenon that is going to be with us forever or if this is a spike in the local economy that will then level out and will take care of itself."

Mandating an increase in graduate student stipends is considered to be a quick-fix solution, but it, too, is a complex matter because a lot of students are supported by faculty research grants, not Stanford money per se, Wasow said.

"If we mandate that stipends for research assistants have to go way up, that would make it harder for these faculty members to get their research grants funded," he said. "Either that or they would have to reduce the number of research assistants they hire, so it's not entirely in our hands to do that."

According to Guy, the housing office will be reviewing its graduate student assignment policies this year to ensure that the process is a fair one that gives priority to those students who most need housing.

Changes recommended by a policy review, Guy said, "may in fact help us a little bit, but it certainly won't add new beds to the system, which I think is best solution."


By Marisa Cigarroa

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