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Students Advocate for More Affordable Housing at City Hall

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By Eliza Partika

About 20 UCI students   gathered last Tuesday, Feb. 14 at Irvine City Hall to speak during an Irvine City Council meeting about student housing insecurity. The students, organized by ASUCI’s Legislative Affairs Commission, UCI Associated Graduate Students Legislative Affairs and College Democrats at UCI, spoke to local officials about the issue, which they said disproportionately affects students in Orange County.

Housing insecurity has been an increasing burden on UCI’s student population over the last four years, due to rising tuition prices and the growing Irvine housing market. Irvine Company, which owns several apartment complexes near campus as well as throughout the affluent city of Irvine, raises rent prices for students alongside prices for renters throughout the city.

At the meeting, students asked city officials to prioritize the development of lower cost housing communities as well as increase development of affordable housing units for students. Speakers also asked the city of Irvine to allocate more funds to the Irvine Community Land Trust, a committee in charge of building student housing, to ensure that more affordable housing units can be built.

There were 20 requests to speak from both the public and students on the issue.

Housing insecurity has become such a problem that students are sometimes “living in their cars  or sleeping on their friends’ couches” because they are unable to find an affordable apartment, said Cassius Rutherford, the Secretary of the Democrats of Greater Irvine and organizer of the event. Rutherford  urged the Council to consider the plight of UCI students.

Other stories from students were strikingly similar; many noted their difficulties getting financial aid, having to work two jobs to support themselves, or having to spend less on food and other necessities to pay the rent. Taylor Chanes, a student attending the advocacy event and the Undergraduate External Vice President at UCI  told the Council, “Most who are struggling can’t afford to miss class, they can’t afford to  miss work — they can’t afford to be here. [Irvine is] one of the richest places to live, one of the safest places to live, and yet I don’t have the safety of knowing where I’ll sleep tomorrow night.”

A graduate student from Australia told the Council he spends 80 percent of his scholarship income on his home.

“We’ve had to rely on our savings to live, and we may have to go into debt soon to continue living here,” he said.

The homeless and housing insecure student population in Orange County has increased by over 230 percent in the last decade, and in 2015, according to Orange County Community Indicators Report, the homeless student population in Orange County totaled 32,000 students.

Aya Labanieh, one of the head spokespeople at the event, said students are accommodating heavy rent burdens by fitting six people into an apartment only meant for four; they are living on couches in their friends’ apartments or out of their cars, and are being forced to shower at the ARC. They also find themselves having to go without meals to save money for rent.

“Students living in these situations don’t think that they are homeless, but by definition, they are homeless. That shouldn’t have to happen in a city as rich as Irvine is,”  said Labanieh.

ASUCI and College Democrats aim to get UC Irvine students more invested and active in the wider Irvine Community.

In 2015, the hourly wage required to afford an average one-bedroom apartment in Orange County was $24.67, meaning a minimum wage worker would have to work nearly 110 hours per week to afford rent, according to OCCIR.

Shannon Kelso, an employee of a business in Irvine which hires graduate students, explained to the Council how she sees her students come to work stressed and unfocused from their worries about their rent, and that she herself has trouble paying her rent for a one-bedroom apartment, even though she makes close to $24 an hour. “And I work in bio sci,” she added.

“With the same level of funding as in 1999,” a student-made flyer for the Council meeting stated, “UC now enrolls over 83,000 more students, and this increase in capacity means that campuses like UCI cannot be expected to tackle the crisis of housing insecurity alone.” Therefore, organizers said, talking to council members and getting them on the side of the students is immensely important.

The student speakers had formed ties with Irvine councilwoman Melissa Fox in a previous meeting, but in order to have a balanced vote on the issue, they need two more council members on their side. Labanieh connected with councilwoman Christina L. Shea, who said she was “moved” by the students who came to speak and that “she was unaware that it was affecting UCI students on such a grand scale.”  Both Fox and Shea are on the Irvine Community Land Trust.  

Another group of students will meet with the Land Trust council later in the week to advocate for more funding for affordable student housing.