Annual Report of the Housing Policy Committee, 2008 – 2009

 

1. Audit of Rental Increases proposed by UAH

The Housing Policy Committee was unable to fulfill one of its core obligations during the current academic year – to analyze the budget of UAH in light of its planned rental increases for the coming year. The HP committee was unable to do so because the administration failed to present a budget. It is our understanding of informal explanations by the administration that the budget remains unfinished because the current economic climate has significantly complicated the budgeting process. The HP committee is collectively frustrated by this failure. We would note that the administration has had difficulty providing timely budget data for the committee’s review throughout the existence of the Housing Policy Committee. The final reports in four of the past six academic years, which includes the current report, document similar delays. Representatives of facilities have agreed belatedly to present their 2009 - 2010 budget to the Committee for review before the first plenary of the fall semester, at which point our findings will be reported. At this time we are unable to report on an actual percentage rental increase for next year other than an unofficial ceiling of 4.3%.

The following review will help to frame the agenda for the Housing Policy Committee during the next academic year. Moreover, the committee will work with the administration to overcome structural impediments to a thoughtful, thorough review of the university’s housing policy. We (and the university) should have a more comprehensive view of all aspects of housing including financing capital improvements, turnover rates, rental rates in comparison to market apartments, a ratio of income to rent for Columbia housing, an analysis of affordability issues and the availability of housing to various Columbia constituencies.

2. Resolution to Develop a Policy for Allocation of Rental Income
   (Adopted: February 1, 2008)

The resolution to develop a policy for allocation of rental income (hereafter, the resolution) called on the administration to develop a policy for funding capital improvements to university owned apartments without relying on escalating rents. It is the position of the Housing Policy Committee that the benefits of capital improvements accrue principally to the University rather than to the tenants. Current UAH policy calls for shortfalls in income caused by capital improvement expenses to be financed by debt, the service of which is to be covered chiefly by rental income. In recent years, the central administration has provided funds to University Apartment Housing to cover residual revenue gaps on an ad-hoc, year by year basis. Nevertheless, the debt burden of UAH continues to grow and the exposure of tenants to these expenses remains problematic.

Despite repeated requests during the previous and current academic years, the administration has failed to produce a formal policy as required by the resolution. This is cause for great concern in the HP committee. The administration has reported nonspecific conversations about the policy called for by the resolution but neither the content nor depth of these conversations has been reported to the committee. Briefly in the 2007-2008 Budget report presented to the committee and expressly in a recent memo provided to the committee on April 20, 2009, Columbia University Facilities acknowledged the need to reduce its reliance on debt and to increase its reliance on “operating income”, as it deems the current practice to be unsustainable. However, it did not identify additional sources of operating income aside from rental income, its main current source.

In light of the economic challenges facing the University, the committee decided to exercise further patience with the administration. Despite our dismay over the fact  that facilities has yet to comply with a unanimously supported, 15-month old Senate action, the committee’s members feel that the kind of policy that might be conceived during this point in the economic turndown may be similarly unsustainable. The HP committee is, therefore, willing to await the budget before taking any further action in accordance with its mandate.

3a. Students: Town Hall

Following up on the Committee’s February 2008 Hearing on Student Housing, Housing Policy sponsored a Student Town Hall this past April. The town hall was scheduled during the notification process of those students being relocated out of 600 W 113th (Nussbaum) and Harmony to provide residence for incoming Columbia College students. The objective of this scheduling was to aid in fielding the inevitable questions and student outrage about being removed from their residences and to provide necessary information. However, once the details of the relocation were described the issues raised quickly evolved in to those relating to housing in general. The Committee’s objective was then data collection.

The overwhelming majority of comments were deep concerns about the efficacy of University Apartment Housing. The complaints centered around severe deficiencies in customer service and inconsistent information about policies and procedures for obtaining housing. Students also reported differences between official policy and general practice, especially in the handling of students transferring from one apartment to another.

Complaints heard at the town hall about varying customer service issues and inconsistent information corroborate several HP reports from last year. It is apparent now that any measures taken to address these complaints were not sufficient to resolve them comprehensively in the eyes of students. Judging from the consistency of the complaints received not only during the event but via e-mail preceding the event and during the year, it appears that the cited inefficiencies in this office are having a direct effect on students' quality of life and their Columbia experience. However, since the Town Hall, representatives from facilities explained that UAH tenant exit surveys describe a vast majority of tenants as satisfied with their experience and would recommend it to others.

In an effort to explain the incongruity between student reports over several years and facility’s data, on April 15th the HP committee published an online Student Housing Survey. The survey will continue to run until 200 responses are gathered. In the interim the Committee has requested the UAH customer service analysis that was drafted during the University’s re-accreditation, in an effort to help determine areas of improvement and of continuing difficulty, and ultimately the best course of action for addressing student concerns. In the interim, the Committee recommends a commitment by UAH to utilize “shoppers” to accurately assess the student experience. Also recommended is the adoption of surveys at the beginning of the student/UAH relationship, as opposed to upon exit when students may be years removed from their initial customer service experience. Further the committee is interested in the possibility of UAH utilizing work study students to provide a deeper labor force, as short handedness is often cited as a major cause of inefficiencies. The committee also notes that managing prospective tenants’ expectations might be achieved by streamlining and enriching UAH’s online resources so as not to overburden its “front of house” staff.

A particularly alarming issue brought up by several students was the impact of the economic downturn on students who pay rent. Students falling behind on their payments report being telephoned directly by a collection officer of UAH and threatened with lawsuits as a first course of action. They report this is done without any official procedure for negotiating payment plans. The Committee has discussed this issue with UAH’s Director of Leasing Services who has thus far been dealing with these students on a case by case basis. She reports currently developing a standard operating procedure to address such students in the future.

3b. Students: Shabbat Sign- in Policy

Concerned students at JTS contacted the Committee regarding what was viewed as an inconvenient sign-in policy that affected observant Jews in student residences on Sabbath days. The policy provided for use of a guest list on Friday evenings, but required that all guests physically sign in on Saturday. Given the inability of Sabbath observers to use cellular phones to contact hosts, many students were left congregating in lobbies before returning home, when they could not gain building access. Through e-mailing with members of List College Student Council and CC’s Director of Residence Life, the Committee was able to follow up on and obtain an adjustment of the policy, which now allows the use of guest lists on both Friday and Saturday.

3c. Students: Office of Work Life

In an effort to address the growing number of students interested in housing outside the UAH system due to either preference or necessity, the Committee was interested in facilitating a relationship between some students and the Office of Work Life. Unlike OSCHA which provides information and listings of available New York housing, Office of Work Life is capable of providing one on one, in-depth consultations with those seeking housing in Manhattan. This may prove particularly useful for those students who apply for residence in UAH but are ultimately unable to procure housing. The Office of Work Life has reported to the
Committee that, while students currently may utilize its services, the Office is working on officially being able to extend its services to students by next year.

4. Retiree Policy

The Committee reviewed a revised policy for retirees who reside in University-owned apartments. Four cohorts are currently defined in the policy: retirees who signed leases prior to July 1, 1984; retirees who signed leases in the time between July 1, 1984 and June 30, 1989; retirees who signed leases in the time between June 30, 1989 and July 1, 2009; and retirees who signed leases after July 1, 2009. Retirees in the first group are permitted to remain in their current apartments throughout retirement. Retirees in the second group, depending upon their position and years of service, may remain in their current apartment throughout their retirement. Retirees in the third group, depending on their position and years of service, may remain in their apartments for three years after retirement at which time they may be obligated to choose a smaller apartment or forgo their apartment. Retirees in the final group, depending upon position and years of service, will be permitted to remain in University-owned apartments for up to 3 years.

The committee expressed its concern that faculty and other long-serving employees of the University might fall through gaps created by this policy. In particular, faculty and staff who believed that they would remain eligible for University-owned apartments might in fact be ineligible because of rules regarding years of service. The committee also expressed concern that this policy would create incentives for faculty to remain in active service rather than to retire.

5. Manhattanville Template

The Committee provided six recommendations summarized here in brief:

• That given potential housing resources in the Morningside Campus following a graduate student move uptown the University develop a vetting process for schools applying for said resources that is based not on the existence of a housing guarantee but rather on demand outstripping supply.

• That the University commit to developing further a sound undergraduate community by designating certain buildings on the Morningside campus for use by the School of General Studies. This would be in keeping with Provost Brinkley’s and Vice President Nick Dirks’ pledge to increase housing services to this school in an effort to provide for increased admissions and ultimately increased revenue for the University.

• That the University ensure that an adequate quantity of new housing be allocated to untenured faculty.

• That the University should employ its resources to leverage the development of a viable ferry service at the newly completed 125th ferry station.

• That the University should expand its mortgage assistance program in light of the opportunities presented by the 125th street ferry station.

• That the University should utilize its proposed information, opportunities, and resource centers to temper the social clime for arriving Columbia residents and to bond old and new communities.