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Vanderbilt graduate students are speaking out against housing that was ostensibly built for them to live in—but which they say they can’t afford, even by the building’s standards.

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Kaitlyn Schaaf has lived in four different homes during her five-year (and counting) career as a Vanderbilt University Ph.D. candidate. Her first living situation, a house that she found through a friend of a friend of her aunt, was only 5.5 miles from campus, but in Nashville traffic, the commute took about an hour.

Four apartments later, she lives a short bus ride from campus but also shares a 1,100-square-foot space with two other people.

Schaaf’s struggle to find decent housing on a graduate student stipend is unusual neither for Vanderbilt’s graduate students nor for graduate students in cities across the United States. So when Vanderbilt officials announced a few years ago that the university was planning to build designated graduate student housing, Schaaf and her peers thought their struggles with cramped apartments and unreliable landlords might come to an end.

But now that the apartments, known as the Broadview at Vanderbilt, are set to open next fall, some are skeptical that they will actually benefit the university’s graduate student population.

While all 529 of the building’s units have been allocated to Vanderbilt graduate and professional students, few of those students can actually afford them. Rents at the Broadview start at $1,377 per month for a studio, which graduate students say is at least 47 percent of their monthly income from stipends.

To make matters worse, the apartments—which are located on Vanderbilt property but owned and operated by two outside companies, Balfour Beatty Campus Solutions and Axium Infrastructure (collectively called Swiftsure Housing Partners)—require renters to have income equal to two and a half times their rent.

This has confused and alarmed students, including Schaaf.

When the apartments were first announced years ago, she felt hopeful. “Maybe this will actually help, maybe this will be worth it,” she recalled thinking. “And then we see the prices … and it was like, ‘Are you serious?’ Such a letdown. This could have been so helpful, and it’s not only not helpful, it can be harmful, I think.”

In a presentation to graduate students about the facility, Broadview staff explained a work-around that would still make it possible for graduate students to afford to live there, attendees told Inside Higher Ed: they could count their waived tuition as a part of their income.

But students were quick to point out that those funds aren’t technically “income.”

“We don’t see that money. It doesn’t hit our bank accounts. We don’t pay our tuition; it gets paid for us. It’s this kind of smoke and mirrors thing that happens behind the scenes,” said Mike Reynolds, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in physics. He also noted that students who are farther along in their Ph.D. studies and no longer taking courses would be unable to take advantage of the loophole.

But most grad student stipends are nowhere near 2.5 times the rent at the Broadview. The highest graduate student base stipend, which goes to biomedical Ph.D. students, is $35,000, according to Maxwell Hamilton, a student studying cancer biology. A Graduate Student Council survey of 500 graduate students found that the average stipend across the university is $33,500, though some students said they received an additional payment of up to $10,000. (Vanderbilt did not respond to a question asking for the minimum, maximum and average graduate student stipends.)

“We recognize The Broadview may not be suitable for all graduate and professional students for a variety of reasons, and we hope to broaden the types of housing available in the future,” Vanderbilt told Inside Higher Ed in an emailed statement.

Market Rate Uncertainty

The disappointment surrounding the Broadview isn’t just about high rent. Additional costs, such as mandatory amenities fees (which covers all standard utilities) starting at $160, have also alarmed students. So has the size of the apartments, the smallest of which—a studio—measures 267 square feet.

The building does have its perks. It’s close to the university, has a grocery store and coffee shop on the premises, and features in-unit laundry, a fitness center and other common areas. Some units also come furnished.

Graduate students said they were asked to fill out a survey about which amenities they most wanted in the building, though they noted that it didn’t include questions about cost.

Students have also criticized Vanderbilt officials for stating that the apartments cost less than the market rate.

In the statement to Inside Higher Ed, university officials said, “As with market housing developments, the project must be financially self-sustaining. The partnership with Vanderbilt requires BBCS/Axium to maintain rental rates that are below market value for comparable housing. Overall unit rents are approximately 18% below market this year compared to similarly appointed apartment buildings near Vanderbilt’s campus.”

Hamilton, the cancer biology Ph.D. candidate, analyzed 55 listings for studio apartments immediately surrounding Vanderbilt in an attempt to verify the university’s claim. He found that the average rent was $1,884—higher than at the Broadview. But the average apartment size, 494 square feet, was nearly twice that of the smallest Broadview unit. The price per square foot at the Broadview—$5.15—was also higher than the apartments Hamilton analyzed, which averaged $3.90 per square foot.

“It is below market rate but only in this really contrived sort of way,” Hamilton said. “If they kept to this claim that they were making, about [rent being] less than the market rate, it would be almost affordable.”

One affordable housing expert in the area, Eddie Latimer, the CEO of Affordable Housing Resources Inc., said that the cost of the Broadview apartments struck him as high—but no more so than similar options in the area.

“There’s several of these affordable efficiencies, but this is a little smaller, by 100 to 200 square feet, than those,” he said. “However, you have incredible amenities that the people on Charlotte [Avenue] and other places are paying out of pocket for.”

The problem, in his view, mostly centers on the ever-increasing costs of construction in Nashville, which have driven rents up.

“There are hardly any bargains left in the city,” he said.

According to Axium’s website, the rents at the Broadview were set entirely by Balfour Beatty and Axium, though the students were curious what information about graduate student stipends—if any—the companies considered in making that decision. The website also states that 25 percent of revenues above a 95 percent occupancy rate will go to the university.

Vanderbilt declined to answer a question regarding what role, if any, the university had in setting the rents. A representative for Balfour Beatty declined to comment for this story, saying that they did not have anything to add beyond Vanderbilt’s statement, and Axium did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s not unusual for a university to hire an outside contractor to build and operate on-campus housing. These partnerships have been around since at least the 1970s, according to Leon McClinton, director of housing and residential life at Oklahoma State University and president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International. But they have increased in popularity due to the speed at which such companies can complete large projects and the financial flexibility they afford universities.

“Typically, universities will provide the land for the construction site and the private company will finance the project. There will be expectations and/or commitment for the university to fill the beds of the [public-private partnership]. Universities advise on rent structures and ranges but the cost is designed to pay for the project,” McClinton said in an email. “Universities can negotiate living policies, processes and the experiences the students have to help the property fit into the campus environment.”

This outsourcing is just one solution colleges have found to try to accommodate students’ rapidly growing housing needs—a problem that has been especially dire in recent years, with off-campus housing becoming increasingly unaffordable and more students wanting to experience dorm living after COVID-19 forced them off campus in 2020. Other universities have turned to hotels, shipping containers and even potentially a barge to house students.

Students Demand Change

Vanderbilt’s Graduate Student Council passed a resolution asking the university to stop promoting the apartments via social media and email “until students’ concerns about affordability have been addressed.” But that resolution has thus far been ignored, Reynolds said, and meetings with administrators have proven fruitless.

In the statement to Inside Higher Ed, Vanderbilt officials said the university is seeking to learn how it can better address students’ housing needs.

“We have launched a working group and will conduct a community survey to further assess the Vanderbilt community’s housing needs. Graduate and professional students are part of this process,” it said.

But the students noted that providing low-cost housing isn’t the only step the university could take to help its students secure housing; it could also increase stipends so graduate students can afford more places in Nashville.

“The Graduate Student Council strongly urges that Vanderbilt increase graduate student stipends to a baseline that matches or exceeds the cost of living in Nashville, as many of our peer institutions already have,” the GSC’s resolution reads.

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