UC Fires Grad Students Unable to Afford Rent

by on March 10, 2020

Why Aren’t CA Political Leaders Protecting Workers?

On February 28, while California activists were focused on the March 3 elections, the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) fired 85 graduate students striking for higher wages. It was the first student strike connecting wages to the housing crisis, as students’ sought a cost of living hike in order to afford housing.

But instead of  helping the workers meet housing costs, UCSC fired the workers. A UC system that relies on grad students for much of its teaching decided to leave these vital workers unable to afford housing.

Where is the statewide outrage by California’s Democratic political leaders over this mass firing?

I understand that UCSC was very savvy in firing the workers when media, politicians and the public were consumed with the national, state and local elections. But there’s no excuse for staying quiet now.

Failed Campus Housing Policies

Grad students in high-housing costs cities have seen their rent burdens get steadily worse. A survey of UC Irvine grad students found they paid between 40-80% of their income for housing. This percentage is likely higher at UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, and certainly UCSC.

I know the Santa Cruz housing situation particularly well because when I taught a course on activism at USCS two decades ago I organized students to run a campaign for affordable housing. At that time there were USCS students in my class sleeping on friend’s sofa’s because they could not obtain housing.

This is well before I heard of the term “exclusionary zoning” but our group immediately focused on vast stretches of Santa Cruz—including the Mission Street transit hub—that were zoned for only one or two stories. As explained in No Place Like Home, a UCSC research project on Santa Cruz’s affordability crisis,  “In the 1970s, neighborhood groups had already changed the Santa Cruz General Plan to protect single family home zoning in all parts of the city, making it more difficult for developers to assemble parcels for apartment buildings, and also by limiting the height of apartment buildings to five stories.”

Sound familiar? And it got worse.

In the 1990’s  this downzoning was expanded to urban areas outside the city, limiting building on large lots to single-family homes.”  Like San Francisco in the late 1970’s, Santa Cruz’s massive downzoning greatly increased the property values of current homeowners and landlords while pricing out the non-rich—of which UCSC graduate students are a part.

As I describe in Generation Priced Out, not building anywhere near enough rental housing to meet demand drives rising urban unaffordability. Students at UCSC, UCLA, and Berkeley have particularly been victimized by their surrounding cities failure to build (UCLA is in the midst of an $870 million student housing expansion to  add more than 5400 beds; Cal plans at least 1300 new beds. It does not appear any are for grad students).

Santa Cruz’s problem is even worse.

First, until 2019 Santa Cruz had no rent controls or eviction protections for tenants. So unlike tenants in longtime rent-controlled cities, UCSC grad students who found housing five or ten years ago were likely unable to maintain below-market rents.

Second, unlike UC Berkeley where students can find cheaper housing a BART ride away, there is no lower-cost city easily reachable by transit to UCSC. A train trip from Santa Clara to Santa Cruz takes nearly two hours; the most popular train trips to Santa Cruz are from Oakland, which is a three hour journey.

Third, UCSC grad students are not paid higher salaries to compensate for steep housing costs. They even get paid $1400 less than those at UC Riverside despite that city having much cheaper rents than Santa Cruz.

Punishing Students for Housing Crisis

California’s affordability crisis is hardly news. And considering I worked with students on Santa Cruz’s housing crisis two decades ago, UCSC’s affordability problems are well known.

So why has UCSC fired graduate students for the “crime” of asking to be paid enough to afford housing?

This sounds like something from the Trump Administration. It should not be happening in blue state California. Democrats have appointed the UC Regents, have super-majority control of the state legislature, and its political leadership prides itself on being pro-labor.

So why aren’t the students getting the necessary intervention? I think a lot of the public doesn’t know about the firing. The presidential nominating contest and the coronavirus is dominating people’s attention.

But we owe those fired to demand our governor and legislators intervene. UC can readily afford COLA’s for UCSC grad students, who will still remain a great bargain for the university.

Graduate students across the University of California are joining the fight. They are demanding a cost of living adjustment (COLA), the rehire of 85 fired graduate students at UCSC, and for the UC to sit down at the negotiating table with their union, UAW 2865. A statewide graduate students strike is spreading from UC Santa Cruz to UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and is currently undergoing expansion through organizing at UC Berkeley, UCLA, and the other campuses.

To follow the strike on Twitter, go to #COLA4UCSC, #Cola4All #SpreadtheStrike and @payusmoreucsc.

Firing graduate students will not make the housing affordability crisis disappear. And UC must stop pretending otherwise.

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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