Note: I would like to clarify that these views are my own and I am not speaking on behalf of RHA
Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS), the organization responsible for providing that housing, is supposed to be committed to supporting access to residence. However, the 20% fee increases proposed earlier this month suggest otherwise. These increases are perpetuating the problem of financial accessibility at UBC while claiming to safeguard it.
As a house president in Totem Park residence, and a member of the Residence Hall Association (RHA), I’ve had the opportunity to hear multiple perspectives from residents from a range of backgrounds on the housing fee increases. RHA includes the elected councils of all residences at UBC, including Totem Park, Place Vanier, Walter Gage, Fairview, and Marine Drive. Members of RHA are responsible for representing and advocating on behalf of students to SHHS.
Although the university’s policy on tuition increases includes a 30-day consultation period, there is no similar opportunity in regard to residence fee increases from Student Housing. When Andrew Parr met with RHA on October 6th, it was to present the proposed increases as a decision that had already been made. Students were in no way consulted before the decision to raise fees was made by SHHS.
Instead, the SHHS will be looking to “student leadership” for advice on where the money should be allocated, but not on the actual fee increases. When they present their budget to the Board of Governors in February, it will include the 20% increase. The opportunities for input – such as the town halls, the online surveys, the meetings with “student leadership” – already have a predetermined outcome.
Louise Cowin, UBC Vice President – Students, sent out an email on October 30 telling students that we are encouraged to give feedback on the fee increases through three online surveys. However, this email was sent 23 days after the proposals were made public by the university.
Given that there is a limited time period for consultation, why weren’t these surveys ready right when the raise for housing and tuition fees was proposed? It makes student input an afterthought: statements like, “your voice counts” seem hollow.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a shortage of on-campus housing. With a winter housing wait-list of approximately 5000 students last year, SHHS is trying to meet the high demand for placement in residence, and the process of major growth and expansion requires a lot of money. There are plans to add 2250 additional beds by 2019, including the $14 million Orchard Commons for Vantage College that will open in the 2016-2017 school year, and a new building in Totem that will contain 350 beds. The fee increases would help to fund those development projects.
However, there seems to be no evidence that SHHS has explored alternative methods for subsidized housing, nor is there any indication that they have tried their best to keep housing costs as low as possible or taken student needs into account. They have simply proposed the fastest way to cover costs with the most convenient method available to them. It is easy to suggest a fee increase of 20% when you will not be the one paying for it.
Disproportionately affected by these increases in fees will be low-income students, students of colour, Indigenous students, students who work as sex-workers, students of marginalized sexual orientations, gender identities, intersex students and disabled students: these students, who already face structural barriers to accessing housing, will also have disproportionate difficulty covering an extra 20% in housing costs. These students are more vulnerable to these increases, and getting pushed out of student housing means dealing with the Vancouver housing market, which has its own host of problems.
RHA will be holding a teach-in for residents on November 18th in the Totem Park ballroom in order to ensure that as many students as possible have the information they need and that their voices will be heard. There will be a letter sent from RHA to the Board of Governors and UBC President Arvind Gupta that students can sign.
As an advocate on behalf of residents, I would like to learn more from Student Housing about how exactly they justify such a large increase in fees and such a lack of effective communication about them. I would like to hear a more specific plan for where the money is going to go, beyond a vague reference to “growth.” Most of all, I would welcome transparency, clarity, and consideration for the views of students, as students are the people who are most affected by this issue.