Things were looking pretty good for Michele Thompson. She’d landed a tenure-track position at a major private research university in the Northeast shortly after completing a postdoc at the same institution. She had a strong publishing record and a good rapport with students and her colleagues. Tenure was within her reach.
Little did Michele know that, after leaving an abusive relationship, she would end up homeless and later rent an apartment from a slumlord in a dangerous neighborhood where she’d be sexually assaulted. All of that happened as she prepared to go up for tenure, which she received.
Thompson’s situation may sound extreme, but it speaks to the financial difficulties many Black faculty members experience when looking for housing on their way toward a tenure-track position. Black faculty members disproportionately shoulder this burden, as they have less wealth than their white colleagues. Black Ph.D. graduates also carry large amounts of student loan debt, which contributes to such wealth gaps once they become faculty members.
Now, with COVID-19, Black faculty are also being disproportionately impacted by having to support family members who may be hospitalized or furloughed because of the virus, leaving them with less resources. The lack of resources in Black communities is also accompanied by racial discrimination in the housing market as well as acts of police brutality, highlighted in the recent killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police, which has sparked national and international protests.
These issues converge when it comes to Black faculty members looking for housing. I noticed this problem in my own department when, after three years of being with us, a colleague and his family moved back to his home state of Nevada because of the high cost of living here in Southern California. That made me think about university initiatives to retain and recruit faculty members of color, especially Black faculty. What’s missing from these initiatives is a recognition of the severity of the impact of the housing crisis on Black faculty, especially giving the high costs of housing on the East and West Coasts.
Many Black faculty experience financial challenges and racial discrimination when looking for housing, whether renting or buying. We’ve seen many articles about students attending college while homeless and poverty among adjuncts. But we also need to examine how the high cost of living affects the diversity of tenure-track faculty.
I started talking to some of my colleagues across the country about this issue, and they told me of their struggles to secure housing before starting a new position and sometimes even after gaining tenure. Here are just a few of their stories. (Names throughout have been changed to protect participant identities.)
Financial Issues and Racial Discrimination
Michele Thompson was living in a dangerous area while going up for tenure. “The landlord took advantage of us, as most were single women leaving desperate circumstances,” she said, describing her circumstances to me. “The front door didn’t have a lock on it; the roof leaked; sometimes there was no water or electricity. As a result of the apartment being unsafe, I was sexually assaulted. When I told the police, they simply asked, ‘Why don’t you just move from here?’ People didn’t understand that I couldn’t afford to. I had a lot of shame. I was a professor. I had done everything right, and I ended up in this situation.”
She continued, “Finally, I broke down and cried to my chair, a white male. I told him everything that had happened to me and expressed my concerns about not being able to get my tenure dossier in on time. He looked at me and said, ‘No, Michele. I think you will be fine … Your file looks good.’ No mention of my living situation. I ultimately found an apartment through a friend; a family needed someone to stay in their place while they were away. That saved me.”
Nicole Jackson moved cross-country for a tenure-track position in California and was stymied several times before finding an apartment: “I was turned down from many rentals because of my debt-to-income ratio. Some of it was race, but it was also because of my student loans and credit card debt. The timing of the move was hard because my last check from my former institution was in June, and I was without a paycheck until September. But I needed a place by August, when the semester started. I had to borrow money from my friend’s parents and sell my truck. It was hard.”
In addition to economic issues, Black faculty members cite racial discrimination as a barrier to finding housing and being prepared to start the academic year on time. Keynetta Smith called several rental properties when she was relocating for a tenure-track position in the South, a few states away from where she received her doctorate. Each time, she inquired about a rental by calling numbers posted on “for rent” signs and leaving voice messages. “After the third message,” she told me, “I thought maybe my voice sounded too ‘urban,’ so I had my husband call, as he is also Black but sounds white on the phone and has a more conventional name. Right away, he received responses. We ended up renting a three-bedroom condo, but it was very stressful because we didn’t find housing until three days before the position started. And we felt the landlord didn’t trust us and asked us questions like, ‘Why would a couple need a three-bedroom condo?’”
Victor Johnson, a 34-year-old staff member and adjunct lecturer at a state university in California, also experienced racial discrimination when looking for housing after he moved from an institution in the South.
“When I turned in an application or spoke to someone over the phone, they seemed likely to rent to me, but when I showed up and they saw I was Black, they were less eager. I ended up subletting a room for three months until I found my own place.”
And Rizzo Sanchez, an assistant professor in New York City, described how they were discouraged from viewing an apartment by the manager: “I had called and made an appointment to see the apartment, which was located in a people-of-color area. The manager was a non-Black Latino. When I arrived, he buzzed me in and said he couldn’t show me the apartment. I asked why since I had made an appointment, and he told I needed a letter from the university showing my employment and salary. I threatened to report him, and he then showed me the apartment.”
Faculty members who move just a short distance face financial barriers and discrimination. Harmony Clark and her husband moved 17 miles to be closer to her job, but the move was still challenging: “At the time, I was nearly seven months pregnant. The house was a foreclosure and in incredible condition. Once we submitted the address to the first lender who preapproved us, he informed us that he could no longer help us. We found another lender and completed his paperwork, but received a second hit to our credit since this was another inquiry. We were preapproved for an FHA loan, but it couldn’t be used for foreclosures. We had to keep paying $270 every 10 days to extend our HUD contract on the house. By the end of it all, we paid nearly $2,000 to keep the contract open. Eventually, my father helped us get a conventional loan.”
Housing challenges can also negatively impact the retention of Black faculty members. Allayah Jones is leaving her tenure-track position in the Northeast to move her family to the South. “We have two children and can’t afford a house here. Childcare is also expensive and my university doesn’t provide any. I am leaving without having another position. I love my job, but I have to take care of my family.”
And the difficulties I’ve described can even slow down a Black faculty member’s ability to gain tenure. Sandra Roberts bought her home in 2008 at the start of furloughs in California. “I had to get a second job in addition to my tenure-track one and take classes at a junior college to postpone paying my student loans,” she told me. “It was stressful, and I had to push my tenure clock back a year.”
COVID-19 and Black Faculty Housing
On top of these issues, Black faculty are not immune to the economic effects of COVID-19, even if they are healthy and employed. Recent studies show that Black people are disproportionately being affected and dying from the virus. For Black faculty members, that often means the economic challenge of taking care of family members who’ve been impacted by the virus.
In Thompson’s words: “Housing insecurity is a bigger issue right now for everyone without wealth to fall back on. Even with salaried jobs, Black faculty will end up paying rent, bills and medical costs for family members who have been furloughed by the virus.”
Sanchez added, “If faculty live on campus and universities aren’t thoughtful about the evacuation policy, it will affect Black faculty’s access to affordable housing. The pandemic could also impact those whose housing rests on supplementary income from outside jobs.”
Faculty members at historically Black colleges and universities can be particularly challenged. HBCUs don’t have large endowments from donors and are dependent on student enrollments, which makes faculty members who teach at such institutions financially vulnerable to potential furloughs. In May, for example, Morehouse College announced furloughs and layoffs of full-time staff. Faculty at other HBCUs are bracing themselves for more possible furloughs as COVID-19 continues into the fall semester, which can make saving and keeping up with housing costs especially difficult.
Many Black faculty members I spoke with said they wished their university helped them more with relocation funds and resources to find housing. One said that college and universities should front all of the relocation expenses, including housing deposits. Another suggested that dorm apartments should be available to faculty members if they need housing, especially in emergency situations. Yet another recommended that universities help with the home-buying process, including providing some of the down payment and offering quality childcare and/or subsidizing childcare costs. Others suggested that institutions work with companies such as Zillow or connect faculty with Realtors to help them find housing.
Ultimately, the fact is that Black tenure-track new hires will need to relocate for tenure-track jobs this fall under difficult conditions of COVID-19. As colleges and universities profess solidarity with Black communities during this time of social unrest, they should also ensure Black faculty have adequate and affordable housing.