Like many renters in the Seattle area, the people who do the majority of teaching and research at the University of Washington (UW) are being economically displaced from the area and their academic careers. One academic worker, who reported having lived in the city for nearly 20 years, was planning to get rid of all of their things and live out of a car upon finishing their PhD. Another reported that rent plus daycare consumed their entire salary.
Now the housing crisis in the Seattle area is about to get even worse because of bad decisions made by the people who are entrusted with leading our public university. Recently, the UW administration announced that they plan to accept bids to privatize four major student housing developments. Through our union, UAW Local 4121, Academic Student Employees and Postdocs are calling UW to account: we are coming together to demand housing justice predicated on the notion that everyone deserves housing that is stable, affordable, and accessible.
If UW turns over these housing developments to a large, for-profit entity—which is the most likely outcome—the result will be disastrous. While the developer would be required to expand housing at those complexes, virtually all of the expansion would be unaffordable, market-rate apartments. Residents there are likely to see our rents go up even higher, squeezing our already-tight budgets beyond what we can take. And there may be less care and concern for the quality of housing or our safety.
Like many Seattle residents, the vast majority of UW Academic Student Employees and Postdocs meet the federal standard of being rent-burdened, that is, paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Our union’s recent housing survey found that 80% of 1,300 respondents meet that definition, paying on average, 45% of their income on rent.
Rent-burdened union members reported high levels of economic stress, such as being forced to commute long distances, give up meals, go deeper into debt, or forgo other basic necessities. At least 22 survey respondents reported experiencing homelessness while at UW. This is especially troublesome since, for many of our members, the university is both our employer and landlord.
Academic Student Employees and Postdocs are the workers who make the UW run, and yet we are struggling to get by. This shouldn't be true in any workplace, especially not in a public institution that ought to be by and for the public. The leaders at UW could be investing in quality, affordable housing for UW workers and students. Instead, they’ve made a plan that prioritizes a few big corporations at the expense of the rest of us.
We are particularly concerned about the impacts that these increasingly privatized housing markets will have on members who are BIPOC, queer, trans, disabled, chronically ill, caregivers, international scholars, and immigrants. Housing precarity is particularly acute for those of us within these marginalized groups. By privatizing university housing, the UW administration is absolving itself of any responsibility and accountability for operating its housing complexes in a safe or socially responsible manner.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen UW prioritizing corporate housing interests. Under their new Master Plan, UW wants to corporatize the U District, choosing skyscrapers and tech partnerships over the voices and needs of the area’s residents and community members. The area is already experiencing problems stemming from privatization and rental monopolies, and the University’s expansion of public-private partnerships will only exacerbate these.
Our union’s Housing Justice Work Group is organizing our members and banding together with community groups to take on the power imbalance between tenants and giant housing conglomerates and to improve housing affordability and accessibility at UW. We are inspired by Seattle’s long history of tenants organizing to take on big, private landlords and the broader networks of corporate greed that have fueled their outpaced growth. And that’s what we must do now, starting at UW.
We’re part of a growing movement that is tackling the increasingly common public-private partnerships at flagship public universities, especially with student and worker housing. Just a few months ago, we saw thousands of organized academic workers at the University of California come together and take to the streets to demand that the UC take action on the state’s housing crisis.
Today we will rally on campus to urge UW not to privatize its student housing. We believe in a public university that is truly public, one that serves the people and the community, not one that serves elites and corporations. We are building a movement to hold UW to account, and to ensure everyone in our community has secure housing and a meaningful say in their housing conditions.
Erin Angelini (Applied Mathematics), Anne Duncan (English), Levin Kim (Information Science), Avi Matarasso (Bioengineering), and Jake Wilson (English) are all Academic Student Employees at the University of Washington.