Unit 1 at UC Berkeley was built in 1960. It has since been renovated. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

Congratulations! You’ve accepted an offer to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of California. Your starting salary as a graduate worker is around $30,000, an almost guarantee that roughly half of your income is going to rent and utilities. You’re new to the city where your UC campus is located, but the institution that accepted you may not offer you housing, not even in your first year, when you’re most unfamiliar with the place you’ll spend the next six years teaching and learning. Coming from out-of-state or even overseas, as almost half of grad students do? Your quandaries get messier. 

This story was first published on CalMatters

And even if you locate a spot on campus, your budget is still stretched. Want a cheaper option off-campus? Prepare for a race to find a roommate and apartment before the life of academe consumes all your time. No car? Reliable public transit is no sure bet.

Despite the wage gains and other benefits UC graduate workers secured from the system last month after a historic six-week-long strike, housing relief wasn’t among them — on- or off-campus.

Of the roughly 113,000 beds occupied by university students, just around 17,500 are for graduate students, according to fall 2022 data from the UC Office of the President.

That distribution makes sense, even if it bodes poorly for graduate students, said Gerry Bomotti, vice chancellor of planning, budget and administration at UC Riverside. The campus housing experience prioritizes undergraduate students, especially freshmen and transfer students. Those new undergraduates are often from low-income families; campus housing allows the UC to integrate the students into university culture and life, which some studies say can lead to slightly better academic outcomes for undergraduates.

That means 21% of UC’s students are in graduate programs, but only 15% of the housing stock is for them. At perennially housing-strapped UC Berkeley, just 8% of graduate students — about 1,000 beds — live in campus housing. UC Merced had nine beds for graduate students.

Not every student wants or even needs to live on campus, but many do —last fall’s UC campus housing waitlist had 8,500 undergraduate and 5,500 graduate students..

And while there’s labor peace now, it may not last. The union contracts that striking graduate workers negotiated with the UC expire in 2025. A demand to include more campus housing and rental subsidies to graduate students was yanked from last year’s contract negotiations. Some graduate students who opposed the agreement for that and other reasons told CalMatters they think the housing demand will be another flashpoint when negotiations for a new deal begin, likely in late 2024.

Some UC campuses technically house more students than there’s space for them. At UC Santa Barbara, total occupancy is at 116% for both graduate and undergraduate students, which typically means that double beds were converted into triples. All that housing scarcity has meant a dwindling housing commitment to graduate students. In 2018, the campus guaranteed new graduate students two years of housing on campus if all requirements were met. That dropped to a single year of guaranteed housing in 2020. But now, there’s no longer a guarantee, according to the graduate housing website, but rather “priority consideration” for a year of housing on campus for new graduate students.

The UC system is planning to build more beds — 21,700 more student beds by 2027 on top of the 15,000 beds campuses added between 2016 and 2020. But the system doesn’t allocate a set amount for graduate and undergraduate students, spokesperson Ryan King said. “Beds are typically allotted based on the needs of each individual campus population during each academic term,” he said.

UC Berkeley is constructing a project with 760 graduate beds intended to open by fall 2026. Those will be off-campus, however, in the neighboring town of Albany. The campus wants to guarantee a year of housing for every new graduate student, but there’s no timeline to build the necessary 2,750 beds, said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. Besides, every one of UC Berkeley’s developments in the city of Berkeley is facing an environmental legal challenge from community groups.

Graduate student union moves

Higher salaries and housing stipends, while helpful, are “not a long-term solution to the housing crisis,” said Rafael Jaime, the union president of the 19,000-strong UAW 2865, one of three unions that struck late last year. He wants to see the union be a force in advocating for local rent-control laws, expanding subsidized housing across the state by partnering with progressive lawmakers and increasing the state’s housing stock. “Otherwise, rents will always continue to rise and rise and we’ll always have to be trying to catch up,” he said.

He also wants campuses to put aside more of their housing stock for graduate students. The graduate student unions may have leverage in that department.

Last year, the state threw down $1.4 billion in grants to California public colleges and universities to develop affordable student housing — including more than $389 million for five UC campuses — with plans of spending another $2.6 billion in loans and grants by 2024. The rules governing that money are silent on whether the beds should be reserved for undergraduate or graduate students.

State housing grant

Leading California lawmakers on higher education state spending offered mixed responses when asked if they’d consider requiring a minimum amount of the new housing grant and loan programs to fund beds for graduate students.

“I don’t think so,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento who is chairperson of the budget subcommittee on education and a chief architect of the state’s recent entry into student housing. “We don’t want to pick one over the other.”

His Senate counterpart signaled more openness. “It’s something I would consider if it turns out that that’s necessary to make sure graduate students have a certain level of housing,” said Sen. John Laird, a Democrat from Salinas, though he added he’d need to study the issue more. 

McCarty said the language was left intentionally broad about which level of student should access the cheaper rents. Any amount of campus affordable housing would benefit both undergraduate and graduate students, he said, in part because those extra beds free up space in the off-campus housing market. 

Delays due to budget deficit

But like anything related to the state budget, there’s a wrinkle. Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing to delay the disbursal of that money in an effort to shore up a projected $22.5 billion state deficit

Instead of committing $750 million in the 2023-24 budget for affordable housing grants, Newsom proposed spending just $500 million and moving the remainder to 2024-25. Likewise, rather than opening $1.8 billion in interest-free loans for student housing in 2023-24 and 2024-25, Newsom’s budget plan calls for spending none of that in 2023-24, $650 million in 2024-25 and $1.15 billion in 2025-26.

And while McCarty said he’ll push to avoid those delays, other state agencies with programs on the chopping block in Newsom’s spending plan will also fight to limit cuts. Let the budget haggling begin.