The death of affordable housing?

Letter to the editor

To the editor,

On Jan. 22, 2015, a simple email was sent out to the student body outlining the housing options for next year. Within this email, university officials drew attention to the new residence hall. In the same email, they also quietly implemented a financially harmful policy. With no fanfare, they excluded the Property Management Apartments (PMAs) from the housing options.

The PMAs in their current form have been offered as undergraduate housing options since the 2007-2008 Academic Year. As offerings, they have on average been 17.03 percent less expensive than comparable non-PMA options. Put into real dollar terms, in the 2014-15 academic year, the average PMA was 17.735 percent less than a comparable non-PMA option in the Village at 115th or Triangle Apartments. This amounted to $1695 in student savings.

For many students, the PMAs were the only “affordable” housing option available. While some students move off campus to escape the high room costs, there is a significant number who are not able to do so. Under current university policy, any student receiving need-based financial aid may lose up to $11,820 of their aid by moving off campus. Combined with the costs of renting an apartment, this means that these students are left with the unenviable choice of suffering off-campus housing which costs them $17,820 (loss of Financial Aid and $500 per month yearly lease) or paying the high costs of university housing. For these students, the PMAs offer the sole “affordable” housing option. Their removal will ultimately place an undue financial burden upon the 187 students who can afford it least.

The big question is: Why? After possessing and offering the PMAs to upperclassmen for at least the past eight years, why would university officials suddenly decide to do away with an option which so greatly benefits the student body?

On Nov. 10, 2014, the university provided what it claimed to be an answer to this question. While giving a presentation on the new Residence Hall, Loretta Sexton, assistant director for Residence Services, fielded a question about the fate of the PMAs. While her exact answer is not recorded, the RHA minutes summarize it as due to them being “old buildings, not very safe or secure.” The RHA general body accepted this response, and on its surface it seems quite valid. However, during the recent Provost’s meeting, Provost William A. Baeslack III announced that the PMAs would be used as housing for graduate students. While graduate students certainly are robust, if there were actually such safety concerns as expressed to the RHA general body, these apartments would not be safe for any students.

That the university would give such an inaccurate answer is troubling. But what is even more troubling is the response the university has given to inquiries about their reasoning and student concerns regarding the PMAs. During the course of writing this piece, this writer has been refused explanations or responses from the Office of Financial Aid, Office of Residence Life and Services, Property Management Office/Office of Real Estate, and even has been delayed in accessing records pertaining to these buildings by Media Relations. In effect, the university has chosen to remain silent about why they truly are eliminating these properties as options for undergrads.

Instead, at the provost meeting on Feb. 2, 2015 the focus was on programming, international students and other important but not financially relevant information. The meetings sped through the two subjects of greatest financial interest, tuition and room and board costs, to instead focus on community issues. When questions about the absence of PMAs were raised, the provost and other university officials reluctantly acknowledged that they not only were removing them as an undergraduate housing option in favor of graduate students, but also had no plans in place to reduce the average 17.03 percent affordability these properties provided. Instead, they told the assembled students how the university wants to promote students living on campus, remain competitive with peer institutions and provide ample housing to offset the rising enrollment rates.

Yet it seems as though eliminating the PMAs is in direct opposition to these goals. Eliminating the most affordable housing hardly encourages students to remain on campus. Compared to Carnegie Mellon, their most expensive housing will be 16.6 percent cheaper than our average housing price next year. And with rising enrollment rates, does it really make sense to eliminate 187 housing units?

Instead, the university is choosing to ignore its own goals, ignore the inquiries of its constituents and pocket nearly $329,000 in new revenue by forcing students to live in other housing options. Instead, the university has chosen to abruptly eliminate an eight-year practice for no discernable meaning, rather than slowly phasing out the PMAs and planning how to offset that nearly $2000 cost difference.

(At time of printing, a meeting has been scheduled with the provost to collect commentary and discuss the issues raised in this piece.)

Junior Ryan P. Cleary
Treasurer, University Media Board