Can you afford the rent?

BY Margaret Loftus

It's 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and Jane Gamble is running late for class, as usual. Grabbing lunch–a bag of microwave popcorn–on the way out the door, she hops in her car and heads north to the University of Washington in Seattle. As usual, she quietly slips into class 15 minutes late. That evening, Gamble, 38, a master's student in urban planning, will make the long trek south to her home in Tacoma in time, if she's lucky, to say good night to her husband and 14-year-old daughter. Such is the plight of a graduate student who must live an hour from school.

Time was, the typical graduate student rented a cramped but cheap garret just off campus and a world away from real life. But after a decade-long economic boom that has greatly inflated housing prices and rents in urban areas and high-tech meccas, many students today can't afford to have their own place, much less one within walking distance of school. While the slowing economy may dampen rents in some markets, housing costs in Cambridge, Mass., for example, are up 50 percent in the past three years. The average one-bedroom apartment there goes for $1,250 a month, while the monthly stipends graduate assistants get to cover living expenses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology range from $1,500 to $1,700. 2 bedroom Seattle apartments cost an average of $1,250 a month, but get more expensive as you get closer the University of Washington campus. In Palo Alto, Calif., home of Stanford, one-bedrooms now go for $2,100, up more than 40 percent just since 1998. Add transportation, healthcare insurance, and child care, and there's not enough left for a monthly supply of ramen noodles.

As a result, cost of living is exerting more and more influence over where students choose to attend graduate school. "If you're weighing three fellowships that are pretty much the same and you don't have a desire to study under a particular professor, 'where will I live?' that's the next question," says Gary Schwarzmueller, executive director of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International. "Especially if it's going to cost you half your stipend to live nearby." With a perfect score of 180 on the LSATS and a 3.8 grade-point average, University of Texas senior Sarah Stansy would have a pretty good shot at any of the top 10 law schools. But she won't even consider NYU, Stanford, or Columbia. "Add an expensive apartment to $26,000 a year, and a lot of people have to consider if it's worth it to go to Stanford," she says. Instead, Stansy hopes to go to Yale or UT, which have comparable costs of living.

No vacancy. Even if you can afford it, a place of your own may not be so easy to come by. Thanks to echo boomers, college dorms are bursting, and undergraduates are competing for apartments off campus, too. When the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta doubled its dorm space to provide Olympics lodging in 1996, administrators expected that the investment would pay off in full student occupancy in five to seven years. Instead, all beds were filled in 18 months, and by last fall the waiting list stretched to 800. Seattle's university area has a 1.8 percent vacancy rate–far below the 5 percent rate considered the neutral point at which the market favors landlords and tenants equally. "It puts the landlords in the driver's seat, and they are taking advantage of it," says Sheila Ochner, senior associate director of housing at UT-Austin, where the vacancy rate is also under 2 percent. A study last year by the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston called for the city's universities and colleges to build 7,200 units of student housing over the next five years to ease the pressure on the rental market.

Faced with maintaining their competitive edge, several universities are, in fact, building as fast as they can. UW is currently building or renovating 400 family units. MIT, whose grad housing has consisted of about 1,000 beds and 400 apartments for families, recently announced plans to build a 400-unit graduate student dormitory on campus. And the University of California–Los Angeles is set to build a 2,000-bed facility on campus for grad students. At Stanford–where stories abound of faculty and graduate students deciding not to accept offers because of housing costs–two 500-unit buildings opened last fall. Now that a plan to build an additional 2,000 units is approved, the university will house as many as 70 percent of its grad students. Rents for these campus units typically run 20 to 30 percent below local rates and may include phone, Internet, and cable–even parking.

For students well into their graduate studies, the building boom is too little, too late. At Columbia, where any of the 5,405 beds available to grad students on campus is as coveted as a rent-controlled apartment, Mark Rothert, a third-year law/M.B.A. student, and his new wife, Heather, spent all last semester on the waiting list for couples housing. In the meantime, they lived in Mark's shared student apartment for $750 a month with two law students and one of their girlfriends. "When my husband studied," Heather recalls of the tight quarters, "I'd watch videos with headphones." Finally, the Rotherts started a search off campus. But even if they could afford the rents of the places they looked at, landlords were unwilling to rent to a student and his as-yet-unemployed wife. In December, after paying a $2,000 brokerage fee and having friends vouch for them, the Rotherts moved into a one-bedroom, $1,125-a-month apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. "Prices have already gone up," says Heather.

About the kids. While the housing crunch may be unique to urban campuses, the scarcity and expense of child care are not. Although the National Coalition for Campus Children's Centers estimates that two thirds of colleges have child care centers on campus, says Todd Boressoff, the coalition's public-policy chair, "they don't begin to meet the need, especially where cost is concerned." Care can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 a year per child or higher.

Before welfare reform, parents attending college in most states were eligible for public subsidies for two years. That support has effectively disappeared under the new law. Some schools, however, offer subsidies based on need. UW, for example, offers below-market child care at two campus centers, and when there are waiting lists–which is almost always-vouchers for area facilities. Randi Shapiro, manager of UW's work/life program, suggests students with children research their options early. At UW, students who don't register for child care in May before the start of the fall semester are on their own for the year.

The same advice may be applied to scoring decent housing. "Call early and often," suggests Görkem Kuterdem, president of UW's Graduate and Professional Student Senate and a fourth-year engineering grad student. He suggests renting a place starting August 1. Michelle Fisher, a grad student at UW, lined up her digs by E-mailing fellow zoology students. Fresh from a master's program at the University of Dayton in Ohio, where she shared a deluxe two-bedroom for a mere $325 a month, Fisher now pays $450 of her $1,230 monthly stipend to share a Victorian house with four other students in Ballard, a 20-to-30-minute bus ride from campus. The housemates live a frugal existence. "We can't do things like go to concerts or go out," Fisher says. "We cook."