Graduate students protest housing crunch

Jennifer Lam/Collegian

“Don’t eat anything!”

“I can’t eat anything! I have no money!”

These were the rallying cries yesterday between two members of the University of Massachusetts Tenant’s Association who, along with several other members, spent the day fasting outside the Whitmore Administration building in protest of the family housing lease’s 6 percent rent increase.

Many of the tenants, the majority being international students, only have UMass jobs available to them. These international students are restricted under visa regulations and UMass policies that say they can only work on-campus and for no more than 20 hours a week. The tenants claim this makes the rent increase unaffordable because in most cases 50 to 70 percent of the students’ salaries are used up in rent costs.

In addition to the rent increase, University child-care costs raised 6 percent, while parking and telecommunication fees also increased.

Originally, over 63 tenants in the North Village family housing apartments refused to sign the new lease, making them tenants-at-will. Upon what the tenant’s consider “threats from the administration,” nearly all of them have signed the new lease.

According to the tenants, the latest “threat” came on Sept. 30 in the form of a letter from Vice Chancellor for Students Affairs and Campus Life Esther Terry.

“During the past week, a growing number of residents have signed a lease that includes the rent increase which went into effect July 1,” said a statement from Terry. “I strongly encourage you to join them. Otherwise, you will have chosen a path that leads to official separation from the University.”

The letter continues to state that as of Oct. 1, the University will allow the tenants-at-will to temporarily continue to live in on campus and complete their studies for the semester. “However, you will not be allowed to register for the spring semester nor receive official credit for studies completed this semester if the situation is not resolved,” said Terry. “When the semester concludes, you will no longer be enrolled in the University. If you are in the United States on a visa, your decision may place your visa in jeopardy.”

The international students decided to sign the new lease for fear that they would lose their status as students and automatically become illegal inhabitants likely to be deported.

According to Khatundi Nabwala-Manda, Vice President of the UMass Tenant’s Association, Chancellor Robert Holub is unwilling to meet with the tenants until the eviction process is over or until the tenants’ all sign their leases.

“Administration is not willing to speak with us, but they are willing to threaten us,” said Nabwala-Manda. “It needs to be understood what it means to be an international student, and if you [lose] your student status, then you are here illegally. That’s serious. So when someone writes us a letter and they close with a threat about how international students might lose their legal status, it just doesn’t sit well with a lot of us – especially when we think of what these students do for the university. They are Teacher’s Assistants and Research Assistants. How are these threats supposed to make us feel?”

Flanked by a few tents and signs reading “Undergrads have a $700 income and $670 rent. You figure it out,” and “Grad students make $1,200, pay $800 and have to feed a family of three,” the tenants attempted to raise awareness to their “financial crisis.”

Throughout the day, several UMass students stopped to hear about the tenants’ situations. The tenants claim they are willing to camp and fast outside Whitmore in the daylight for what may become “days of protest.”

Amber Bradley, a single-mother and UMass undergraduate student studying anthropology and pre-law and living in North Village, said “It literally comes down to either I pay the rent or I buy food. One of them has to give, and it isn’t going to be food. I’d rather put food in my daughter’s stomach.”

“We want administration to have a serious conversation with us about this issue,” said Nabwala-Manda. “[Administration] made it very clear that they are really not concerned about making our housing affordable. I feel as though administration is out-of-touch, because they made comments that ‘most students who go to UMass have to get loans’ and that the tenants should all just get loans.’ It’s not easy for a student from Kenya to just walk into Bank of America and say ‘hey can you give me a loan.’ It’s already hard for domestic students to get loans, never mind international students.”

“We very much want this [housing issue] to work out for everybody,” said University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. “Eviction is a last resort. We are not trivializing the residents’ arguments