This is an exciting time for research at Stony Brook with the “transformative” Simons Gift. Ambitious plans have been made to expand the faculty at Stony Brook.
This would also mean an expansion (even if modest) of graduate student enrollment, raising the question: where will they live?
Currently, there are three locations on campus that house graduate students: Chapin Apartments on East Campus, Schomburg Apartments; and Block G of West Apartments. Of these, Chapin is the only apartment complex that houses graduate students with families.
Demand for on-campus accommodation has been consistently high. However, the increasing cost of maintaining Chapin means that rent has consistently gone up in the past, and the administration predicts that this trend will continue.
Of the three offerings, Chapin remains the most affordable to a majority of graduate students and is popular among our international students, whose chief concern is ease of access to the campus.
Schomburg is also popular among single graduate students, while West is used by graduate students largely as temporary accommodation, before they move to other spaces in Chapin, Schomburg or off-campus.
As part of planning for the future, the university recognized the need for more graduate student housing. A task force was constituted by the University Senate and charged with investigating the need/demand for graduate and professional (medical and dental) student housing.
As part of collecting data to this end, the Stony Brook Center for Survey Research and an independent outside agency, Brailsford & Dunlavey, Inc. put together two separate reports in 2007. At the time, the most common housing arrangement graduate students had been to rent a room in a house with other graduate students and/or professionals.
The median monthly income at the time for graduate students living on-campus was $1,200, while that of students living off-campus was $1,400. Unsurprisingly, 63 percent of graduate students on-campus and 74 percent off-campus felt affordability was the most important factor in their decision of where to live off campus.
As older professionals, graduate students both on- and off-campus made (and continue to make) the ability to study in the privacy of their own space a priority. In addition to examining current needs at the time, the report also queried willingness to live on-campus in a new complex.
Among graduate students already living on-campus, more than half said they would be willing to live in a one bedroom apartment costing $800, a two-bedroom apartment costing $1,400, or a single room in a two bedroom apartment. Graduate students living off-campus at the time showed similar willingness to live on campus at those proposed rents.
This data is further strengthened by a second survey conducted in 2011 to gauge interest in an on-campus residential complex. Among graduate students, only about one-quarter of graduate students reported paying more than $1,000 per month in rent. About half reported earning less than $2,000 per month. This reflects the reality of the financial situation of those in graduate school.
Graduate students more often than not tend to be making their way through school. Ph.D. students in the sciences and engineering tend to be better funded with federal, state or private research dollars than our counterparts in the humanities. There is data that has been reported in these surveys that a majority of students in the humanities and social sciences find it difficult to meet their monthly housing expenses.
To meet future demand, the university began planning a housing complex aimed at graduate and professional (medical and dental) students, and medical residents. While this complex was aimed to provide higher quality than any other graduate student accommodation on campus, the rent was projected to be upwards of $1,450 per month.
Based on the above data, a majority of students would not be able to afford living there, effectively not solving the question of housing. While this project has been put on hold due to budgetary issues with the state, it shows that the compromise between affordability and availability is yet far from being achieved.
While we at the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) understand the significant costs of developing New York State land within the confines of state regulation, there is a need for new thinking to move closer to a solution.
In light of this project, the GSO ramped up advocacy for quality, affordable housing for graduate students. We successfully brought this to the attention of Graduate Council, a standing committee of the University Senate.
We also brought a resolution to the floor of the GSO Senate asking the University Senate to convene a committee to investigate and plan for student housing. Our sustained effort saw the University Senate pass a resolution and form a joint Senate-Administration committee to look at housing for students, professionals and junior faculty, with representation from student groups.
This committee has begun looking at various options, leaving none off the table. The GSO continues to insist that all plans keep in mind the need for affordable housing and the limits of affordability for graduate students.
Recently the Three Village community has also shown some hostility toward students and the university, which has added to the on-campus housing issues. One of the community groups, the Concerned Homeowners Association, has launched a petition asking the Town of Brookhaven to impose a moratorium on all rentals in the Three Village area.
This will adversely affect graduate students who largely live in the town and drive to the university. While the university does not have control over the housing market, as the largest organization in the area it is incumbent upon the administration to engage the community in a positive manner and address some of their concerns.
We have also been pushing for the university to highlight contributions of graduate students to the community. For example, students from the Music Department teach and perform at local churches, and students from Biomedical Engineering and Math volunteer at local schools, to cite some examples.
When it comes to housing for graduate students, the status quo cannot be maintained anymore. At the GSO, we intend to continue our advocacy to ensure that graduate students can afford to live in a house of bricks, and not straw, waiting to be blown away.
Atulya Prasad has been a GSO Senator for the Biomedical Engineering Department since Fall of 2009.
Correction: May 12, 2014
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the independent company that put together the reports on the demand for graduate housing. The company Brailsford & Dunlavey, Inc, not Brailsford and Dunlavey, Inc..