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University offers flexibility, more affordable options for graduate student and family housing

With graduate students facing sticker shock at the cost of new housing under construction on campus, University of Utah leaders are creating unique accommodations for some of the current residents, including rent discounts and guaranteed notice of building demolitions and move-out deadlines.

Starting this summer, eligible single graduate students will be offered lower-priced units in the newly constructed Spruce building—an option not offered before. If they request a studio apartment, they will be able to take advantage of a 20% discount on rent their first year in new housing, and 10% the second year—totaling 24 months of discounted rent.

Meanwhile, a graduate student compensation committee is meeting this semester to discuss ways to improve how graduate student researchers and instructors are paid. The committee, co-chaired by Dave Kieda, dean of The Graduate School, and Daryl Butt, dean of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, will make recommendations to President Taylor Randall by the end of the Spring 2023 semester.

The changes are the result of ongoing conversations between the Resident Council and University Auxiliary Services, which manages graduate student and family housing.

Last October, Auxiliary Services sent notices to residents in 334 units in University West Village and Medical Plaza. The single and married graduate students who live in the apartments that will be closing prior to fall semester are required to find off-campus housing or express interest and receive priority for new housing.

The Medical Towers, along with the Medical Plaza Townhomes and several courts in the West Village, are some of the oldest buildings on campus. Built in 1961 and 1971, the buildings have long outlived their usefulness, said Jenn Reed, associate vice president of Auxiliary Services. The university is beginning to struggle to maintain the aging buildings. Pipe breaks are common, including one middle-of-the-night flood over a Medical Towers students’ bedroom this fall. The student had to be moved and the apartment closed. Another family stayed in a hotel over the holiday break after a water main broke in a kitchen.

We sat down with Reed to learn more about the closures and get insights about the future of family and graduate housing on campus.

Why is the university choosing to close these housing locations now?

Great question. I’ll start by first saying that at the University of Utah, we understand that family and graduate housing is particularly critical for international graduate students, who may begin their work and education at the U without the ability to qualify to rent other housing in the Salt Lake City market. Most do not have Social Security numbers and cannot complete a credit and reference check. The university is committed to serving this community to the best of our ability.

Now, back to the “why.” The simple answer is that the infrastructure in these buildings is quite literally crumbling. Broken pipes are almost a weekly occurrence and the repairs we continue to make are temporary solutions. Our long-term solution, one that has been in the planning stages for 10 years, is to finally replace these outdated facilities.

So, what happens to the remaining residents in these buildings?

We didn’t want these closures to come as a surprise to any of our residents and have been regularly communicating with these residents for years that these closures would be coming. As you can imagine, it still came as a shock to many residents and we have worked diligently with these students to address their concerns.

All residents have been given at least 9 months advance notice of these changes. In the future, in response to a request from student representatives, we will give at least 12 months advance notice prior to any building closures.

Each resident has three options available to them. First, eligible families can transfer to one of our remaining older, and therefore only remaining, low-rent apartments in the Cedar Courts in the East & West Villages. Second, residents can transfer to a new studio or one, two or three-bedroom apartments in the new Sunnyside Apartments, which are currently under construction. Third, residents can choose to vacate and find accommodations off campus.

To date, approximately 70 families are taking advantage of the opportunity to transfer to Cedar Courts due to building closures.

Single graduate students living in the Medical Plaza, Aspen or Cedar Apartments closing in the summer of 2023 who choose to transfer to a studio apartment in the new Sunnyside Apartments graduate housing opening in August, will receive 20% off their monthly rental charge for their first year, 2023-24. If students are eligible to renew their lease for another year, they will receive 10% off their monthly rental charge in a studio apartment for 2024-25. That adds up to a potential total of 24 months of reduced rent.

With housing market rates in Salt Lake City having increased dramatically over the last few years, will the university be charging these low-income students the same high monthly rates?

No. And here’s some history to help explain how we go to where we are today: The apartments were built in 1961 and 1971. The bonds that funded the original buildings were paid off years ago. So, rents in the buildings have been kept artificially low—ranging from $725 to $1,550 per unit—as university leaders worked on a master plan to replace the aging apartments. With university apartment rents so low, the Medical Plaza and both University West and University East Village have had 12-month-long wait lists.

But the waiting list only tells a small part of the story. We have not kept up with the Salt Lake City market. But with the aging housing we were providing, we didn’t feel comfortable raising rents at the same rate as the city market.  We may have done the students a disservice in the process.

The new apartments will cost between $900 to $2,350 a month—essentially market rate for a downtown Salt Lake City studio, or one to three-bedroom unit. Laundry, internet, other utility expenses, and campus shuttle service will be provided free of charge. The market-rate rents also are a matter of fairness with students in other campus housing, including residence halls, paying above-market rates in some cases.

The adjusted rental rates were set based on the cost of $126 million in bonds issued to cover the new construction. State law requires that Auxiliary Services—including parking, the campus store, the stadium and arena, and student housing—be self-sustaining. Rental income from the buildings will be used to pay those bonds over the next 30 years.

By moving more students to the newly named Sunnyside Village, how will these students get to and from main campus to attend their classes?

We will be increasing the frequency of campus shuttle service between main campus destinations and the East and West Village sites.

When will the demolition of Medical Towers begin?

That schedule is dependent upon when we can acquire the funding. It’s going to cost approximately $10 million to complete the demolition.

Will the university be doing anything to boost graduate student salaries?

At the request of President Taylor Randall, a Graduate Student Stipend Task Force (GSSTF) has been formed to study the issue. The co-chairs of the GSSTF—Graduate School Dean David Kieda and College of Mines and Earth Sciences Dean Darryl Butt—have assembled a team of 17 faculty, administrators, staff, and students from across campus.

The GSSTF is charged with developing a statement of principles for graduate student support and will also provide short-term and long-term recommendations regarding graduate student stipend levels, benefits, fees, housing costs, and other critical items. The GSSTF is required to deliver a final report to President Randall by the end of Spring Semester 2023.

Recent U housing increases

The university is in the process of adding more than 1,700 beds of on-campus student housing to come online in the coming years. These projects include:

Another 552 beds in the Ivory University House will be privately owned and operated by the Ivory Foundation, opening in fall 2023.