University apartment tenants organize rent strike, call on UCLA for financial relief
Dozens of university apartment tenants are withholding rent and demanding UCLA Housing cancel rent increases, make housing affordable and protect tenants unable to pay rent. (Daniel Leibowitz/Daily Bruin staff)
By Kari Lau
July 20, 2020 11:58 p.m.
Dozens of university apartment tenants have withheld rent for months as part of a strike calling on UCLA to cancel rent because of concerns about housing costs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The strikers are demanding that UCLA cancel rent for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, make housing affordable and protect tenants who are unable to pay rent.
The UCLA Tenants’ Union, the newly formed union of university apartment residents who organized the strike, sent these demands and testimonials of tenants’ struggles to pay rent in an April letter to Chancellor Gene Block and other UCLA administrators. As of May, more than 100 university apartment tenants agreed to withhold rent.
However, UCLA Housing needs funds to continue housing operations and is unable to cancel rent, said Assistant Vice Chancellors Suzanne Seplow and Peter Angelis in a statement addressed to the union and the University Apartments South Resident Association.
The UASRA is not organizing the strike, but it supports the cause, said UASRA President Marbet Munoz, a university apartment resident and spouse of a third-year medical student.
UCLA Housing will not place academic records holds on tenants who can’t pay rent during the pandemic, but tenants are still obligated to pay for all outstanding rent once “safer-at-home” orders are lifted, the statement read.
UCLA Housing will also continue to increase rent costs, according to the statement.
UCLA Housing increases housing rates yearly to pay for rising costs to maintain buildings, utility expenses and employee wages and benefits, according to a separate UCLA Housing statement. Student housing rates will increase by 2% for the upcoming school year. Other University of California campuses canceled rent increases, including UC Santa Cruz’s graduate and family student housing communities.
The union plans to send another letter signed by more than 50 tenants to the assistant vice chancellors to reassert its demands.
When the state first issued lockdown orders, many tenants expressed concerns about their uncertain financial situations and their ability to pay rent on UASRA’s Facebook group, said Jessie Stoolman, one of the strike’s organizers and an anthropology graduate student.
These concerns sparked the idea to form the union and organize the strike by early April, she added.
The strike organizers released a survey in April to gauge tenants’ financial situations and interest in a strike, Stoolman said. As of July, the survey has more than 480 responses, she said in a subsequent emailed statement.
In April, more than 85% of the survey’s respondees answered that the pandemic affected or will impact their ability to pay rent.
Some tenants who answered the survey said the cost of housing forced them to choose between feeding their families or paying rent, Stoolman said.
Issues of housing affordability are not new, she added.
The average UCLA graduate student’s salary is $32,963, according to GlassDoor. The cheapest option for a graduate university apartment costs $11,412 annually, which is more than 30% of an average graduate student’s salary. Households that use more than 30% of their income for housing are considered cost-burdened, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Strikers are demanding UCLA to cap housing costs at 30% of students’ incomes when campus reopens for in-person operations.
Amy McMeeking, one of the strikers and a law student, said raising rent during a pandemic and with an economy in poor shape shows the lack of care UCLA Housing has for its residents.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated preexisting issues with university-owned housing’s affordability, Stoolman said.
“Graduate students who live in (university) housing have been talking about how hard it is to pay rent with our stipends,” she said. “Then with the pandemic, it just became even more highlighted how difficult it is.”