Op-Ed: A demilitarized campus, affordable housing and a living wage

Sunday, July 12, 2020 - 10:14pm

"No one said you have to live in Ann Arbor." — U-M HR

"No one said you have to live in Ann Arbor." — U-M HR Buy this photo
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Content warning: The story you soon will read involves nothing more than the violence we endure every day under colonial-white supremacist-ableist-capitalist-heteropatriarchy. Some characters may be familiar: the police, the landlord, domestic abuser/stalker and a neoliberal university. 

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Almost a month into the stay-at-home order that started in March, I was home alone, physically-distanced and finishing the last chapter of my dissertation in my one-bedroom apartment in Ypsilanti. But the domestic violence in the apartment upstairs had intensified during the stay-at-home period. 

One midnight, he was violent again, throwing furniture around, the woman crying and helpless. I thought about all the ways things could go wrong when the police are invited into a domestic violence scene … I felt ashamed for not coming up with a plan earlier and not talking to her about the ways I could support her. But there was no time to lose. Violence was mounting. I found myself dialing 911. The voice at the other end asked if I would let the police into the building. 

To open the door for the police, I had to walk out of my apartment and down the common stairs, since the stingy landlord hadn’t bothered to install buzzers in the apartments, just like he hadn’t bothered to repair the water leakage or replace the fire extinguishers that expired in 2008. I crept down the stairs, worried I might be seen by the abuser. That night, I had to let the police into the building twice. The second time around, when I asked anxiously, “What is happening? Is he still around?” the police said, “He’s gone.” Nothing more.

He was not gone. The next day, the abuser showed up at my apartment, pounding on the door and forcing the handle. He came back at 5 in the morning and again the day after. I was now being stalked and no longer feeling safe in my house. I never should have called the police. The need to escape this apartment was piercing. But, how? As a graduate employee and an international student, how could I afford the security deposit for a new apartment? Was the landlord going to let me break the lease? Was I going to have to pay rent on two apartments?

Knowing that international students are not eligible for the federal CARES Act emergency funds, I emailed the University of Michigan to learn about other options. The University encouraged me to apply to emergency funding through the same mechanism as domestic students, but also recommended filing a police report — even though the reason I was displaced from my house was partly the result of how the police had handled the situation poorly. I applied for funding with little hope. While trying to figure out a plan, I stayed with a friend and began to slowly accept that I had become houseless in the middle of the pandemic. After a long wait, my funding request was denied; the message stated, “Although we are sympathetic to the difficulties that you are facing and to the impact they have on your financial stability, we are unable to award funding on the basis of your request.”

Housing and the climate crisis 

What “financial stability” is the University referring to? The majority of graduate employees at the University experience financial instability and housing insecurity. According to a closed survey conducted by the Graduate Employees’ Organization in 2019, graduate employees spend between 39 percent and 64 percent of their salary to pay rent. Even the cheapest housing option owned by the University, Northwood, costs well above 30 percent of graduate employees’ salaries, making graduate students housing insecure. As if this is not enough precarity for graduate students, many of whom are also parents and/or on nonimmigrant visas, a recent update to Northwood’s Community Living Standards document indicates that the University can now terminate a tenant’s contract at any time due to the COVID-19 crisis — threatening a number of graduate workers with sudden houselessness. This policy endangers the health of graduate students by displacing them from their homes at a time when securing adequate affordable housing will not be easy and physical distancing is crucial for limiting the spread of the virus.

During 2019 contract negotiations, GEO asked for a salary increase to address the reality of skyrocketing housing costs in Ann Arbor, an issue with which I and many other graduate workers struggle. University HR responded, “No one said you have to live in Ann Arbor.” Instead of creating cheaper housing options, the University has been pushing an increasing number of undergraduate and graduate students into Ypsilanti, exacerbating gentrification through displacement of its long-term working class and Black residents. As the University continues to gentrify the surrounding cities, it also funds displacement of poor communities of color in Detroit by investing its endowment dollars in private equity firms that buy and renovate houses out of tax foreclosure. University President Mark Schlissel made the University’s position very clear in an interview, stating, “the dislocation of a certain number of people in return for investment in decaying housing stock is part of the pathway to making the city a better place to live.” On the contrary, when I moved to Ypsilanti in the fall of 2019 — because I could not afford to live in Ann Arbor anymore — I did not think I was making the city of Ypsilanti a better place to live, knowing that somebody else who lived here is not living here anymore because of me. 

Not being able to live in the city where one is employed entails huge social, economic and climate implications. Transportation between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor is not easy. Public transportation in the area is unreliable even though students can ride the AATA buses for free; commuting by car is expensive, puts a strain on the University’s already exhausted parking system and runs counter to the University’s carbon neutrality goal. As the state’s largest employer, the University has the power to significantly decrease carbon emission from transportation by investing in creating affordable housing options within the city of Ann Arbor for all of its employees and students.

Money over student and employee well-being on campus

Undergraduate students from poor and middle-class families also find it increasingly difficult to afford housing in Ann Arbor. On June 25, the University’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2021 failed to achieve the majority required for approval by the Board of Regents. On June 29, Schlissel called a special Regents meeting with no public comment, at which the (essentially-identical) proposed budget was approved with a 1.9 percent tuition hike for the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses and a 3.9 percent hike for the Flint campus. The Regents also approved a 1.9 percent increase in residence hall room and board costs, a 1.9 percent increase in University Health Services Fee and an additional $50 COVID fee. Regent Denise Ilitch (D), who casted a dissenting vote in both meetings, characterized the proposal as “tone-deaf” during a time when families are struggling with the social and financial effects of COVID-19, and stated that “the University of Michigan is a wealthy institution and (can afford) to maintain the status quo."

In fact, the University is sitting on a $6.8 billion unrestricted endowment, which is to be used exactly during times like these. However, in 2019, the University spent only $368 million of its endowment (see page 30 of this report), representing only 4.6 percent of the University’s endowment. Moreover, this cost is typical of the amount spent in the previous five years. Despite its ability to tap into unrestricted reserves, the University preferred to lay off nearly 120 out of 300 lecturers on the Flint campus and at least 738 Michigan Medicine employees and denied funding to graduate students who were experiencing precarity as a result of the pandemic. The approved controversial budget allocates $12.8 million for need-based financial aid for undergraduates on the Ann Arbor campus, and if needed, $400 million could be called from the endowment. However, a $400 million allocation from the endowment is no different from what the University spends in a typical fiscal year when there is no global pandemic. It is worrisome the University believes the same amount as always would be sufficient to meet the needs of the graduate employees, international students, lecturers and staff during a “public health-informed, in-residence” fall semester.

Policing costs

On June 5, in the wake of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s killings by the police, Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, hosted a panel on “Constructive Conversations for Societal Change.” Sellers asked Eddie Washington, executive director of the Division of Public Safety and Security, to share his thoughts on the University of Minnesota’s decision to reduce ties with the Minneapolis Police Department and what this means for the University of Michigan. Washington responded by talking about the culture of accountability present within both the DPSS and Ann Arbor Police Department, the same police department which promoted officer David Ried to sergeant after he killed Aura Rosser in her home in 2014. Washington also said it is time to listen and learn to do better. While the University figures out how to do that, we can stop believing that state-sanctioned violence makes us safer. How many more stories like the one above do we need to convince the administration that the police inflict the very violence they supposedly protect the people from?

The University currently spends over $12 million on DPSS at the Ann Arbor campus, an additional $2 million on policing for the Dearborn campus and $3 million for the Flint campus. The DPSS budget increased 17.6 percent in the last year (see page 52 of this document), an increase greater than the University has allowed for graduate employees and lecturers (during collective bargaining through GEO and LEO, respectively). Why invest in a punitive and violent institution instead of the well-being of the campus community? University students joined the wave of students at universities across the country resisting police violence, and started a petition asking the University to cut ties all with AAPD and defund, disarm and scale back DPSS operations. As the leading public institution in Michigan, the University should re-allocate those $17 million in programs and systems that prioritize the health, safety and housing needs of our community. 

What should the University administration do?

After a month of instability in my housing situation while finishing my degree in the middle of the pandemic, I was able to sublease a summer apartment in Ann Arbor and get out of the lease from the previous one. None of this would have been possible without the support of my faculty advisor and my friends. By investing in violent institutions and not providing a living wage and affordable housing to its graduate employees, the University is relying on the individuals and local social networks to take up the responsibility of addressing scenes of distress. This is in contradiction with the University’s public mission and not everyone may always have access to those social networks that will protect them from further harm. 

Graduate students are terrified that the University administration’s plans for the approaching fall semester include no apparent investment in their health, safety and housing needs, even though their labor is essential for undergraduate learning. Schlissel’s “cautiously optimistic” approach for “a public-health informed, in-residence semester” acknowledged “that many faculty, staff, and students have concerns about returning to in-person learning, teaching and work,” while completely dismissing the concerns of the graduate student employees who are neither faculty, nor staff, nor students but have experiences at the intersection of all three constituents. International graduate employees are grappling with the complexities of their visa situations under xenophobic federal policies, the difficulties of parenting, racial and gendered violence and ableism along with all the precarities introduced by COVID-19. 

Perhaps it is simply too hard for the University administration to fathom our actual experience, because they do not live in the houses we live in, ride the buses we do or balance a budget as small as ours. A step towards understanding would include Schlissel and the Regents listening to the University’s constituents who have been clamoring to rehire all the lecturers laid-off across three campuses, fund The One University Campaign's proposals, respond publicly to this open letter by disabled University of Michigan students and allies and address the concerns raised in GEO's open letter signed by over 1,800 community members. It is still not too late for the University to act before the irreversible consequences of a potential second wave hit our campus community. 

Özge Savaş is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University and is also a member of the Graduate Employees Organization and Ann Arbor Tenants Union and can be reached at osavas@umich.edu.