Tamara Hache was supposed to spend her summer researching 19th-century literature in Argentina. The third-year PhD candidate in Latin American and Iberian cultures had secured a research grant and planned on subletting her Columbia-owned apartment, hopping on a plane to her hometown of Buenos Aires, and working on her dissertation while spending time with friends and family.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic leaves Hache stuck in New York City indefinitely. Argentina’s borders are closed, and her Columbia apartment is her only housing option in the United States. She’s pre-paid her bills for the spring semester, but she lacks a reliable source of summer income without the fellowship. Her only source of funds is her Graduate School of Arts and Sciences summer stipend, which barely covers her rent with enough left over to survive. Even if she could find a job, her visa forbids her from working off-campus.
On April 5, Hache received an email with an update from Columbia Residential, the University entity that operates graduate student housing and effectively acts as her landlord. At the end of the section was a sentence that threw her life into deep uncertainty: “Unfortunately, Columbia Residential is not able to provide rent relief for students who wish to keep their Columbia units throughout the summer and beyond.”
There’s a good chance Hache won’t be able to foot the bill when rents are due in June, and the stakes are high for her and other graduate students if they aren’t able to make their rent. Unlike a typical New York City landlord, who would need to adjudicate a tenant’s failure to pay rent in housing court, Columbia Residential’s initial response occurs internally. Instead, the University can respond against non-payment with academic measures: withholding course registration, transcripts, or diplomas. For international students, that can result in more than just an academic inconvenience—without documentation of full-time student status, they are at risk of losing their visas and residency statuses to live and work in the US.
Over 600 undergraduate and graduate students have signed Columbia People’s COVID Response’s petition demanding that Columbia Facilities cancel summer rent, halt evictions, and protect international and immigrant students and workers. The directors of graduate studies for 14 departments expressed their support for rent cancellation in a letter to the University administrators. Some graduate workers will initiate a strike this Friday, halting their instruction, grading, and research work. Others are organizing a rent strike for upcoming payment deadlines. As landlords across New York City are waiving rents in the wake of the medical and economic crisis, tenants like Hache wonder why Columbia is unwilling to do the same.
Even Mayor Bill de Blasio, when asked about Columbia’s tenant policies on a WNYC broadcast last Friday, said that he was “perplexed” as to why Columbia has not provided more flexible options for its graduate students, “especially as one of the wealthiest institutions in the city,” and committed to assigning the city’s general counsel to follow up on the issue.
New York City is the epicenter of the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic. As of this article’s publishing, experts estimate nearly 140,000 total cases and over 10,000 deaths from the virus in the city. With the entire state entering its second month on lockdown of all non-essential activity, the economic impacts are also dramatic: An estimated 40 percent of New York City tenants were unable to pay their rents for April.
In an effort to alleviate economic anxieties and prevent mass displacement, Governor Andrew Cuomo halted all evictions until June 20. Mayor de Blasio appealed to the city’s Rent Guidelines Board, the body responsible for regulating rent-stabilized units, to freeze rents and allow security deposits to be used toward rent payments. The board denied his request. In the meantime, a coalition of tenant advocacy groups is pushing for a citywide rent strike, but many landlords—including Columbia Residential—are still expecting payments for May’s rent.
Last Monday, the GSAS Office of the Dean announced an initiative providing an additional $1,500 to all GSAS students with semester-based stipends and up to $1,500 more funding on an application basis. The University described the policy as intentionally flexible for students’ needs rather than explicitly providing rent relief.
“Though this money can, and surely will, be used to cover rent, it is not limited to that purpose,” a University spokesperson said. “We want qualifying students to be able to use these funds to address the financial needs they find most pressing.” Columbia intends to provide the entire $3,000 to the more than 1,000 graduate students on 9-month appointments without summer employment at the University.
Beyond the funding, however, graduate students have taken issue with the University’s housing and compensation policies for years, decrying Columbia’s leverage as an institution acting simultaneously as a university, employer, and landlord. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn these concerns into immediate reality: For graduate students beyond their 6th year, and any student to whom Columbia does not allocate full emergency funding, paying rent for Columbia-owned apartments will be impossible without another income source—putting their housing, residency statuses, and livelihoods at risk.
While graduate students pursue their own degrees through classes and research, they also provide essential services to the University’s operation: They lead discussion sections, work as teaching assistants, staff offices, and instruct Core and foreign language classes. Columbia is relatively unique among peer institutions in managing the housing of over 5,000 graduate students. Their apartments, along with staff and faculty housing, are operated by Columbia Residential, a division of Columbia Facilities completely separate from the undergraduate housing entity.
Unlike undergraduate housing, which operates on an academic calendar and requires students to relocate each year, Columbia Residential positions itself more like a typical property management company; tenants can remain in their apartments between years and over summers, and the facilities lack the institutional oversight of resident advisors and conduct limitations that define dormitory living. For all intents and purposes, the only difference between their housing arrangement and an off-campus apartment is that their landlord is not just a landlord—it is also their employer and academic institution.
As a division of Columbia Facilities, Columbia Residential ostensibly operates separately from Columbia’s academic realm, but some residents see the two entities as more connected than the University might claim.
“Whenever historically we have complained about Columbia housing or Columbia Residential, the University always says, ‘Oh, it’s autonomous separation of church and state. They don’t listen to us. We don’t have anything to do with them,’” says Lexie Cook, a fifth-year PhD student and strike organizer.
“But then there are these moments when this back door opens, like when our academic standing can be challenged because we don’t pay rent, and all of a sudden, housing and the University or the registrar or GSAS are not separate entities anymore.”
Under New York state law, a landlord must open a case in housing court in order to take action against a non-paying tenant; Columbia Residential does not apply this practice to its tenants. The University considers the majority of grad student UAH tenants—those paying for housing on a semester-by-semester basis—as not having official leases and therefore, ineligible to adjudicate missed payments in state housing court. Columbia does consider tenants who pay for housing separately from the academic calendar as maintaining a lease and eligible for recourse in court.
New York state law contains no specific guidance on whether semester-based housing arrangements are exempt from housing court or on universities applying academic penalties for insufficient rent payment. Daniel Evans, a housing attorney with the Goddard Riverside Law Project, believes that housing court is a fairer option more consistent with the procedure for traditional landlords.
“If students are unable to pay rent for whatever reason, those claims should be adjudicated in housing court, not by revoking their ability to register for classes,” Evans says. “That doesn’t seem to help the problem. If [the] housing court has jurisdiction, just because Columbia is a university, they shouldn’t be able to avoid housing court and restricting students’ ability to register for classes because a global pandemic happened.”
Yearly stipends differ by grad school and individual department. In the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the humanities, social sciences, and math departments provide just over $30,000 per academic year and $3,884 for summers. Students in natural science departments receive an annual payment of $40,310, which proves a much more reliable income during this crisis. Students in their 6th, 7th, or any subsequent years of graduate study are not eligible for any summer stipends.
A student eligible for the maximum stipend enhancement will receive $6,884 for the summer, which covers rent for a Columbia studio apartment with $544 per month left over for any other expenses. These numbers make paying rent for Columbia-owned apartments impossible for 6th years, 7th years, and any student rejected from the full $3,000 in additional funding.
Hache intends to apply for the full $3,000, but worries that the funding won’t be enough to make ends meet.
“It's definitely helpful because it's more than nothing, which is what they were offering before,” Hache says. “But for what the average rent for the summer is, it's really not enough to cover rent for the summer at Columbia Housing.”
After her rent for her Columbia-owned studio apartment, Hache will have less than $1,000 remaining from her stipend for all other expenses for the three months of summer. Other graduate students unable to work off-campus—either because they are international students or face difficulties in the current job market—could be forced to survive on even less, particularly those who receive no summer funding outside of this newly-announced program.
Questions of graduate students’ reliance on the University for income begs questions about the line between their role as students and workers. This tension is nothing new at Columbia, where graduate students have pressured the University to acknowledge them as employees in addition to students and consequently have the right to bargain collectively.
After years of organizing, the Graduate Workers of Columbia made history in Nov. 2018 as the first graduate workers’ union to enter bargaining negotiations with administration at an Ivy League university. After a year of negotiations, GWC’s members voted on March 9 to authorize a strike over disagreements regarding the contract’s health benefits and harassment recourse policies.
On Friday, April 24, a portion of graduate student workers will initiate a work stoppage in pursuance of the demands outlined in Columbia People’s COVID Response’s petition. This strike is not officially authorized by the union, nor will it be carried out by all GWC-UAW members—in fact, the GWC bargaining committee voted against a work stoppage.
Instead, a collective of rank-and-file union members have organized this action in an effort to pressure the University to meet their demands. Participating teaching assistants and course instructors will stop holding classes, discussion sections, and grading. Research workers who strike will stop all research activity.
As an organizer, Cook sees a labor stoppage as one of the most effective tools at students’ disposal for achieving their goals.“It seems to be that Columbia, if anything, has been systematically disregarding our demands. And so we've gone through all the channels of advocacy,” Cook says.
“We’ve been organizing around a lot of different strategies, and I think at this point we feel like we need to really pull every lever we have. And one of the pressure points that we've always had is this possibility of withholding our labor or work that we do: teaching and doing research to keep the university running.”
The two predominant summer income options for graduate students in non-STEM fields are instructing summer courses at Columbia or applying for fellowships to work or research outside New York City and subletting rooms. The pandemic renders both options uncertain.
Summer classes have all been moved online, and some instructors fear that low enrollment will cancel their teaching appointments and cut their compensation by nearly $5,000. Subletting, which graduate students say is the norm for their summers, expects low demand for housing as New York City remains an epicenter of the pandemic into the summer. Additionally, Columbia Residential narrowed the potential pool of subtenants even further by restricting subletting to Columbia affiliates in response to COVID-19.
Columbia Residential has shown no indication of relaxing this policy—in fact, they seem to be doubling down on it. The April billing notification for graduate residents of Columbia Residential stated that if a student’s account balance is greater than $1,000 by May 7, the student’s fall course registration and access to transcripts will be restricted.
As social distancing and shelter-in-place orders went into effect, graduate students began receiving various communications from the University regarding financial support. In the GSAS email stating that rent relief would not be offered, the school also announced a program providing up to $500 of “move-out assistance” for residents who provided documentation of their financial need by April 15 (later extended to April 22) and vacated their residence by April 30. Residents who moved out before April 22 received a rent refund for the days they spent in their units past March 31, as well as prorated rent for the month of April.
For students who had already planned on moving in April, this program could prove helpful. Others, like third-year PhD student Juan Carlos Gárzon, saw the offer as encouraging move-outs during shelter-in-place.
“I can't believe that they are supporting move-outs in the context of a stay-at-home order because it's the complete opposite to what the health officials are suggesting or what anyone in the world is asking for you to do,” Gárzon says. “So you have two options: you move out alone, or you bring a lot of people to your house. That's very dangerous for everyone.”
Gárzon chose to move out alone. Unable to return home to Ecuador, Gárzon took up a friend’s offer to stay at her home in Oregon as the crisis worsened in New York in March. He tried to observe social distancing restrictions during his move, but the efforts proved impossible—he was unable to physically move his heaviest belongings, including an air-conditioner, without assistance. He applied for move-out assistance after it was announced, but was rejected because he moved out too soon—the program didn’t cover tenants who moved before its announcement. He was also charged for leaving the air conditioning unit in the room.
While Columbia Residential will continue charging its tenants through the summer, the University has canceled April and May rents for its small business tenants. In a press release, Executive Vice President for University Facilities and Operations David Greenberg spoke to the decision: “This is the hardest of times for everyone, and noticeably for our retail partners, and we will do everything we can to help them get through this crisis.” As EVP for University Facilities and Operations, Greenberg also oversees leases for graduate student housing.
In addition to placing pressure on the University, graduate students (including the union) are also advocating for Assembly Bill A10224A, a New York state legislature bill that suspends rent payments for workers whose incomes are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and pushing for the inclusion of student housing in the bill. The bill is currently in the committee stage and, if passed, will cancel all Columbia Residential payments.
But legislation is not the only means of relieving Columbia graduate students’ economic anxieties. Unlike a typical landlord, Columbia has no mortgage payment on many of its buildings, and pays no property taxes. Choosing to cancel rents is a choice the University has the power to make, even though it might have lasting effects on budgets for next year. But the stakes of this crisis are more than financial.
Elvira Blanco, a Ph.D. student from Venezuela, is unsure whether her summer teaching appointment will remain in place. Without adequate compensation, she fears having no choice but to live with her family in Venezuela, where she’d return to another level of societal crisis, including a healthcare system that has faced emergency-level conditions for years. She described the prospect of returning to Venezuela as “being cornered into going somewhere that is like a war zone.”
She recalls one email she received from Columbia as the pandemic began that advertised a program to share photos of students’ quarantines. “‘All of Columbia's official communications have this language of community. We're a community. So now you can upload a picture of yourself to this website and tell us what you're doing because we're a community,’” she remembers. “But what kind of community leaves people in housing insecurity in a situation like this?”
Enjoy leafing through our eighth issue!