As the Town of Blacksburg updates it’s comprehensive plan, I’ve been having lots of discussions about the need for more affordable housing in town and nearby. Often the town talks about housing for graduate students, staff and junior faculty as being a need and priority. The town also values affordable student housing. Inevitably, these discussions lead to folks to ask, why do we have a housing affordability problem? Why is housing so expensive and why can’t some people afford to live in town? Part of the answer is a high demand and a small supply of housing. Another part of the answer is low wages paid to staff and some faculty at the university. Median gross rent (rent plus utilities) is $887/month in Montgomery County according to the latest American Community Survey estimates. In order to comfortably afford the median rent, a household needs to have an annual income of about $42,576. The median gross rent in Blacksburg is higher, $998/month. A household would need an income of $47,904 annually to comfortably afford $998 per month. The university pays nearly half, 44%, of it’s employees, less than $50,000 per year. 395 employees earn less than $25,000 annually. Some workers could not afford the County median rent if they shared the cost with someone making same amount of money. The lowest paid workers would be living well below the U.S. poverty line if they are a single-earner household with any dependents. You can find this pay information in the Richmond Times Dispatch “2016-2017 salaries of Virginia state employees” database.
So, what is the University’s responsibility? Certainly to pay a living wage, but if need be, could they provide a housing benefit?
George Mason has developed rental housing for faculty and staff in response to high housing costs in Fairfax County. ‘Masonvale” has 157 rental units with below-market rents which the University offers to faculty, staff and county municipal employees for up to three years. The idea is that Masonvale provides “stepping stone” housing for new employees who may not be able to afford housing in Fairfax County until they have been working in their position for a number of years. The housing is basically a recruitment tool and assumes that those taking advantage of this benefit will be earning a living wage/salary and have enough saved for a security deposit or down payment within a few years. You can read more in this Urban Land Institute case study.
Other universities offer housing benefits in the form of down-payment assistance. The university of Chicago “provides up to $10,000 in down payment assistance and up to $2,400 in rental assistance to eligible employees who move to one of the communities surrounding campus depending on home or rental location.” The University of Chicago’s housing benefit is probably one of the oldest housing benefits for university employees and was born out of an effort to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood when crime rates discouraged student applications, but other universities are offering similar benefits. Here are some more examples: Temple, the University of Colorado, and the University of Kentucky. UK’s benefit seems most earnestly aimed at helping employee who earn lower wages to buy a home which is really important because homeownership is the primary way households built wealth in the US.
So, conclusions: Housing benefits can help universities recruit employees and help increase employee quality of life, thereby helping the university retain employees. As of yet, Virginia Tech does not offer any such benefit, but maybe something is in the works?!? Afterall, it seems exploitative to pay some employees so little that they must commute from West Virginia in order to access housing and even then, they are likely still financially strained.