Housing Assistance for Faculty and Staff

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.

2 thoughts on “Housing Assistance for Faculty and Staff

  1. This is a big issue for graduate students as well… Using the Blacksburg area as a specific example, housing locations closer to the university are typically more desired by graduate and undergraduate students alike because of the convenience of being closer to campus. You’re less tied to the bus schedules, if at all, making commuting to and from classes less of a burden. While, yes, there is more affordable housing closer to campus, given that undergraduate students greatly outnumber graduate students, many of these places are overrun by undergraduates, who are more prone to throw frequent parties, be disruptive to neighbors, or otherwise disrupt or be disrespectful to their community. (I’ve unfortunately had to live in an extreme example of this, making me reluctant to ever live near undergraduates again so that I don’t even risk the chance of having those issues again.) The cheapest places are definitely older, with lower quality construction or amenities as a result (e.g. no air conditioning). To live in a decent community that has better amenities is VERY expensive around here… I considered myself very lucky to find a place for $700/month + utilities that wasn’t a hole in the wall.

    In the process of finding my current place, I started wondering why there weren’t communities that catered to graduate students or young professionals exclusively. There are places in Christiansburg that prohibit undergraduate students from living there, but they are also more expensive. Why can’t there be a more affordable place that also prohibits undergraduate students? Could VT potentially help push for housing that is better suited for these populations? I’d also love to see if VT will offer any kind of benefits to help these kinds of situations

  2. Ashley says:

    First I want to say thank you for commenting on George Mason University’s Masonvale! As a graduate of GMU and someone who’s supervisors lived in Masonvale and often spent lots fo time there, it is an excellent recruiting tool used by the institution. As far as Virginia Tech, to be honest, I’m surprised that they do not provide any type of housing benefit. For those living in Blacksburg, it’s not a cheap place to live and to be honest, there should be some type of down payment or rental coverage for for the first three months as a condition of working for the institution. As graduate students, AF faculty and professors, we give so much of ourselves and our livelihood to the institution that they least they can do is provide us with some type of housing stipend. I honestly don’t think that’s too much to ask. Hopefully they’ll be moving towards something like this in the near future.

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