UC Riverside, like other UC campuses, offers apartments, such as two-bedroom units with a kitchen and living area that house four people, but they’re still less appealing to graduate students because those buildings mostly house undergraduates. UC Riverside recently built a complex with enough apartments for 1,500 students. Though graduate students can apply, few choose to live there, Bomotti said.
While some campuses run housing just for graduate students, UC Riverside doesn’t. Bomotti said his campus is focusing more on undergraduate student housing because that’s where he sees demand.
Last fall, about 3,500 students were on campus housing waitlists at UC Riverside — and roughly 3,000 were undergraduates. In fact, the waitlist hasn’t changed in the past few years. In fall 2019, the campus had a waitlist of more than 3,000 students. Though UC Riverside added 2,300 more beds between then and 2021, the waitlist last fall remained practically unchanged, Bomotti noted.
Financial aid and affordability also come into play, Bomotti said. An undergraduate student may receive enough financial aid from state, federal and campus resources to absorb the costs of campus housing. Graduate students in doctoral programs, on the other hand, afford enrollment chiefly through the campus pay they receive to teach undergraduates and conduct research. Even though campus beds are generally cheaper than average off-campus rents, a graduate student may still decide that living on campus isn't financially feasible, so they find roommates and live elsewhere.
Finally, if the campus were to subsidize graduate student housing, some other operation at UC Riverside would likely bear the brunt — there are always trade-offs, Bomotti said.
Graduate student union moves
Higher salaries and housing stipends, while helpful, are “not a long-term solution to the housing crisis,” said Rafael Jaime, the union president of the 19,000-strong UAW 2865, one of three unions that struck late last year. He wants to see the union be a force in advocating for local rent-control laws, expanding subsidized housing across the state by partnering with progressive lawmakers and increasing the state’s housing stock. “Otherwise, rents will always continue to rise and rise and we’ll always have to be trying to catch up,” he said.
He also wants campuses to put aside more of their housing stock for graduate students. The graduate student unions may have leverage in that department.
Last year, the state threw down $1.4 billion in grants to California public colleges and universities to develop affordable student housing — including $389 million for five UC campuses — with plans of spending another $2.6 billion in loans and grants by 2024. The rules governing that money are silent on whether the beds should be reserved for undergraduate or graduate students.
State housing grant
Leading California lawmakers on higher education state spending offered mixed responses when asked by CalMatters if they’d consider requiring a minimum amount of the new housing grant and loan programs to fund beds for graduate students.
“I don’t think so,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento who is chairperson of the budget subcommittee on education and a chief architect of the state’s recent entry into student housing. “We don't want to pick one over the other.”
His Senate counterpart signaled more openness. “It’s something I would consider if it turns out that that's necessary to make sure graduate students have a certain level of housing,” said Sen. John Laird, a Democrat from Salinas, though he added he’d need to study the issue more.
McCarty said the language was left intentionally broad about which level of student should access the cheaper rents. Any amount of campus affordable housing would benefit both undergraduate and graduate students, he said, in part because those extra beds free up space in the off-campus housing market.
Delays due to budget deficit
But like anything related to the state budget, there’s a wrinkle. Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing to delay the disbursal of that money in an effort to shore up a projected $22.5 billion state deficit.
Instead of committing $750 million in the 2023-24 budget for affordable housing grants, Newsom proposed spending just $500 million and moving the remainder to 2024-25. Likewise, rather than opening $1.8 billion in interest-free loans for student housing in 2023-24 and 2024-25, Newsom’s budget plan calls for spending none of that in 2023-24, $650 million in 2024-25 and $1.15 billion in 2025-26.
And while McCarty said he’ll push to avoid those delays, other state agencies with programs on the chopping block in Newsom’s spending plan will also fight to limit cuts. Let the budget haggling begin.