UMass family housing trouble

By Alyssa Creamer and Alyssa Creamer

Jennifer Lam/Collegian

When Ricardo Gomez lived in Colombia, the University of Massachusetts guaranteed him entrance into a great program for international education – but UMass never guaranteed Gomez housing.

For the past three years, Gomez, an international student and the head of the UMass Tenant’s Association, has resided in the North Village family housing apartments with his wife Zulma, and his two daughters. He and several others now face a daunting countdown to Sept. 30 – the date University Housing will evict residents who refuse to sign the North Village and Lincoln Apartments’ new lease, which most significantly, includes a six percent increase in rent.

Originally, 93 of the 217 residents in North Village voluntarily converted their status as “tenants” to “tenants-at-will.” These residents decided to continue paying the previous lease’s monthly rent, ignoring the University’s increased rent demand.

“Many people are scared because the tone of the [eviction] notice seemed threatening,” said Gomez. “The administration is somehow making people believe that we are not paying the rent. And this is not the case, we are paying the rent, but we are paying the old rent. We have decided not to sign the new lease and not to pay the increase, but people are paying their rent.”

The threat of eviction now faces what University spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski believes to be a “dwindling” number of individuals, now around 49. “We are getting more people to sign the lease,” said Blaguszewski.

Though the number of people resisting the new lease may be shrinking, Gomez insists residents’ financial concerns are not subsiding. With the increase, a two-bedroom apartment that formerly cost $704 each month now costs $746.

Ninety-five percent of those who reside in North Village are international students, and many of them are confined between visa regulations stating they cannot hold jobs outside UMass and University regulations stating they cannot work over 20 hours as students. Additionally, the international spouses of these students are not allowed to study at the University or get a job in the United States due to visa regulations, according to Gomez.

Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) Vice President Tim Sutton stated that “the rent increase alone must be covered with half of these students’ salaries.”

“The administration may say that it’s only a small increase, yet, they don’t realize that the rent is not the only expense students have on a limited income. The costs of telecommunications rose between 6 and 10 percent, parking fees increased from $80 to $96 and then there is the cost of food and medical insurance for their families. A lot of people just don’t know how they can do it,” said Gomez.

Blaguszewski said the University administration “very much wants this [housing issue] to work out for everybody.”

This past May, the UMass Tenant’s Association was told by the administration that energy costs increased, and therefore, family housing rent which includes utilities needed to also increase.

“When we started this protest against the rent increase we told the [interim vice] chancellor [of student affairs] Esther Terry that we wanted to meet and talk about how residents could save energy. However, the last renovation of the apartments was 24 years ago, so its possible people were not being wasteful as the administration implied, but that the houses are old and not [energy-efficient],” said Gomez. “We said, ‘Let’s start an educational campaign to educate people about how to save energy.’ They said no that’s not necessary because everyone has their own thermostat. So they trivialized our problem.”

“Eviction is a last resort. We are not trivializing the residents’ arguments,” said Blaguszewski. “We understand that the rental increase is something [residents] will have to find money for, and we recognize it will be difficult.”

Blaguszewski added that UMass is attempting to accommodate those in financial hardship by offering payment plans for the rent increase and explained that this is the first rent increase for family housing in four years. These plans were not specified by the University.

Sutton believes the University is considering eviction a last resort, however.

“In the past, occasionally people have fallen behind in their rent,” said Sutton. “Tenants are not legally allowed to sign a new lease until they are all paid up. There has never been a threat of eviction this soon. People are usually given at least until October to pay off their debt, and sign the new lease.”

Prior to this year, many family housing residents were eligible for approximately $800 in fuel assistance. However, the state no longer recognizes the North Village and Lincoln apartments as different living situations from UMass’ campus dorms.

“We are not University dorms. We are University apartments,” said Gomez. “We have to sign a lease that is separate from fees and tuition costs, and we’re not paying room and board, which comes with telecommunications included. We pay rent.”

According to Gomez, the University told the Tenant’s Association they would write a letter stating “family housing is not the same as University housing,” but the Tenant’s Association is unclear if a letter was sent to the state benefactors.

Blaguszewski said UMass is willing to reprieve the rent increase for those who recently lost fuel assistance.

“We responded to the tenant’s fuel assistance problem,” Blaguszewski said. “This sort of accommodation shows the University’s good faith.”

Sutton claims the reprieve offer is a public relations move by the administration “to make it seem like they are doing something when they really are not, because only a handful of people actually knew about the fuel assistance program.”

Gomez speculated that the University does not focus on its graduate students as much as its undergraduate students. He feels that expenses such as the construction of a $50 million recreation center are being developed to attract undergraduate students, and Gomez does not agree that large investments like that should be built when UMass’s child care does not have enough money to keep students’ children off a two-year long waiting list.

The UMass Tenant’s Association is trying to get the administration to speak with them about the tenants’ options. Until then, Gomez hopes no one will be evicted, but believes this issue might be left to a court judge’s decision.

Alyssa Creamer can be reached at [email protected]