Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: University must do more for grad student housing

By
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Being a graduate student is tough. Students enrolled in Brown’s master’s, doctoral and pre-professional programs spend as many as six years conducting research, procuring funding and support for that research, teaching undergraduates and writing dissertations. Tack on the imperatives of networking, maintaining relationships with mentors and advisors and securing positions in academia or industry after graduation, and there’s little time left in most graduate students’ schedules. But at Brown, there can be just one more thing to care of: Making sure your house doesn’t imminently fall apart, while difficult, sometimes abusive, landlords do little to help.

It is no surprise to anyone familiar with living off-campus that there are serious issues with housing options near Brown. There are several houses and apartments with collapsing ceilings in bathrooms, unresponsive landlords and other unfortunate surprises. Without a centralized renting process, graduate students and their families can be subject to scams and high rents. For international students — many of whom must navigate the American renting process before even stepping foot in the country — finding and maintaining housing can pose a particularly thorny challenge, as area landlords have resorted to abuse and threats of deportation to stop them from raising concerns about their living facilities.

Housing-related headaches can be attributed in large part to the lack of competitive options in the University’s vicinity. The University doesn’t have adequate housing, either on-or off-campus, to deal with its growing population of undergraduate and graduate students. To be sure, this housing deficit is a grave problem not only for the University’s quality of life but also for its aspirations of becoming a top-tier destination for advanced research. Indeed, the dearth of reliable housing may jeopardize the University’s ability to attract and retain high-caliber graduate students, who might choose other research universities with more convenient housing options. Consider the case of a doctoral candidate, who is married with kids. They are making, at minimum, a five- to six-year commitment to a single doctoral program. On top of fulfilling personal obligations and coursework, why would they also want to spend all those years dealing with the complications associated with housing on College Hill?

We implore the University to make the provision of new housing options — a measure supported by the Graduate Student Council — a priority in its long-term infrastructure plans. To begin, the University can try to build new dormitories and apartment facilities, or buy nearby properties and turn them into University-subsidized housing. None of this will be cheap, of course. But, given the construction of the new performing arts center, the expansion of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the completed renovation of Friedman Hall and the planning of an undergraduate wellness dorm, it is clear that the administration — and the University’s financial backers — are willing to devote considerable resources to new development. Why not concurrently devote resources to the development or refurbishment of the University’s housing facilities? New dormitories and apartments constitute a critical investment in the ability of the University to attract talented students, just as important as new performance spaces and classrooms.

Peer schools, for their part, have recognized this reality: Yale and Cornell, for example, have 11 and three buildings, respectively, that are exclusively dedicated to housing graduate students. To be sure, it is not enough to rely on private developers — one of which, Steeple Street RI, LLC, is in the process of constructing luxury apartments on Canal Street — to fill the housing shortage. Even large real estate companies promising high-quality facilities can offer shoddy services, charge high fees and provide a poor quality of residential life, as Yale graduate students have experienced.

In the near-term, the University should provide substantially increased support for graduate students seeking rental apartments on College Hill. The administration might put together a clear guide specifically to address concerns of incoming graduate students — who can have different needs from those of undergraduates — about how to navigate the rental environment in Providence and what rights they have as they interact with landlords. It might also assemble and distribute a list of properties run by landlords who are known to be reliable and trustworthy. These efforts certainly won’t solve every residential woe incurred by graduate students, but they’re a good starting point for further and more aggressive action down the road. After all, the University’s status as an institution committed to robust research and instruction depends not only on brand-new academic buildings, but also on competitive — and livable — housing on and around campus.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Rhaime Kim ’20, Grace Layer ’20, Mark Liang ’19 and Krista Stapleford ’21. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.