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Low-income students approach housing options, weighing price and convenience

Lack of accessibility to affordable housing can limit options for students

<p>The search for housing requires some students to weigh affordability and amenities.</p>

The search for housing requires some students to weigh affordability and amenities.

With just a few weeks of classes under their belts, students around Grounds have begun organizing groups of roommates, going on apartment tours and applying for and renewing leases. Low-income students at the University, who are located in a city with a notable lack of affordable housing, weigh this decision carefully.

Fourth-year College student Dave Rodriguez-Gutierrez said he opted for an off-Grounds living arrangement that was affordable, though farther from Grounds than other options. However, Rodriguez-Gutierrez noted that low-income students do not have the privilege of making housing decisions based on what is ideal or most convenient.

“When I was looking for housing, I've tried to look for the cheapest housing possible and that will also offer me the greatest benefits,” Rodriguez-Gutierrez said. “Yes, I live a bit far — I have to drive every day, like five to 10 minutes … So I guess I just have to settle with what's in there, you know?”

Housing and Residence Life offers an off-Grounds housing guide for students looking to weigh options. The guide lists rates for off-Grounds options as starting at $597 per month for a 12-month lease, not including utilities.

University Spokesperson Wes Hester said that, according to surveys that gauge students’ satisfaction with housing, “distance from Grounds is one of the most significant factors in both satisfaction and price.”

For approximately 5,600 students who benefit from AccessUVA, the University’s financial aid program that guarantees 100 percent of an undergraduate student’s demonstrated financial need is met, housing costs of up to $6,720 are included in the cost of attendance covered by the program.

According to Hester, the University aims to make its on-Grounds housing accessible and competitive with off-Grounds rates. Housing and Residence Life submits proposed rates to the Board of Visitors for approval annually.

“Market studies are done to ensure on-Grounds housing rates are at or below comparable off-Grounds options,” Hester said.

On-Grounds housing options for upperclass students can range in rates from $6,480 to $7,850 per academic year, with the cheapest options being living in double rooms in the Hereford or International Residence Colleges. For the $7,850 rate, students can live in the newly-constructed Bond House, or in the Copeley, Faulkner or Language Houses, all of which provide single rooms.

Although the University promotes living on-Grounds and is considering requiring all second-year students to live in on-Grounds housing in the future, this option also involves inconveniences for some low-income students.

Fourth-year College student Meghan Clancy doubles as a first-year student in Batten’s master of public policy program, which held a two-week summer orientation just before the start of the academic school year. When Clancy thought ahead to request early move-in to her on-Grounds living, the University did not list her master’s orientation program as one of the groups designated eligible for early move-in, while students on athletic teams or in the latest undergraduate orientation group were scheduled to do so.

It was not financially practical for Clancy to continue subletting her off-Grounds apartment in Charlottesville in order to attend the two weeks of orientation, but she was eventually granted permission to move on-Grounds one week early, during her orientation program, after applying through a special approval application.

“I think they need to take into consideration that I didn't budget for another week of subletting…  that's a month’s worth of food,” Clancy said. “And I think that’s just saying, ‘Oh, well you don't fit into an academic group or an athletic group, you don't count.’”

Clancy faced a similar situation when she needed to find affordable housing arrangements for staying in Charlottesville over the summer because she knew she was unable to stay in her on-Grounds apartment.

“I was living on-Grounds during the academic year, but I knew that wasn't really feasible for me in the summer,” Clancy said. “So it really came down to literally the week I was moving out of on-Grounds housing, I secured a sublet. But if I hadn't done that, I don't really know what my option would be.”

The University’s efforts for support

During its June 7 meeting, the Board endorsed University President Jim Ryan’s 10-year strategic plan, “Great and Good: The 2030 Plan.” The Board then unanimously voted in favor of its official approval Aug. 2.

The first point listed under the plan’s key initiatives is SuccessUVA, which builds upon AccessUVA. 

According to the plan, “SuccessUVA will go even further — significantly expanding our financial aid program to enable more low- and middle-income students to attend the University and engage in all that we offer.” The initiative also aims to bring more first-generation students and students of other underrepresented communities to the University.

Clancy said that her housing experiences brings attention to the fact that the University should support first-generation and low-income students after they have been enrolled.

“We got ourselves here on our own merits,” Clancy said. “It's once we're here is where they need to start pushing their efforts.”

Fourth-year Curry student Kalea Obermeyer recently addressed the University’s Board of Visitors during its Academic and Student Life Committee meeting Sept. 12, advocating on behalf of first-generation and low-income students at the University.  Obermeyer noted that the first-generation and low-income experiences are not monolithic and are unique to the individual, but that many shared challenges are rooted in a need for a sense of belonging, financial barriers and a lack of preparedness.

During Kalea’s presentation, Derrick Wang, a fourth-year College student and student member of the Board of Visitors, noted that 8 percent of the student body is low-income, and half of low-income students at the University are first-generation. 

The University offers specialized support for low-income and first-generation students through the Office of the Dean of Students, and Housing and Residence Life and Student Financial Services offer information sessions for students looking to make informed housing decisions. 

Hester noted that Student Financial Services will be hosting a Hoos Money information session Oct. 16, which will aim to prepare students for living off-Grounds and is particularly targeted toward students with financial need.

Clancy said that these efforts by the University are well-intentioned but often lack the extra support necessary to guide first-generation and low-income students through the process, and she recalled being redirected back-and-forth between HRL and Student Financial Services.

“If the question is directed to Student Financial Services about housing, they will tell you, ‘Well, that's really a Housing and Residence Life issue,’” Clancy said. “So there's not overlap between those two offices, where there really should be, [or] people that are well informed about the obstacles that specifically first-gen and low-income students deal with here.”

For students who are first-generation, Clancy said not being able to relate with parents on the issue is an added burden when informational resources aren’t familiar with obstacles specific to first-generation and low-income students.

"Because they would [say], ‘Well, that's really a Student Financial Services question’ or ‘That's really something you just need to consider on your own or talk with your parents about,’ which brings in the first-generation aspect,” Clancy said. “If you don't have parents that have had this experience of having to weigh those options, they're not — even if they want to be — they're not the best resource for that.”