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When your boss is also your landlord: Rent strike at Columbia University

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“We don’t have enough money to stay in New York or to pay rent”


Columbia University is not only one of New York City’s largest schools, with a sprawling 36-acre campus, but also one of its mightiest landlords. The university’s trustees own 260 properties in areas surrounding the Morningside Heights campus, according to city records, including 150 apartment buildings.

With many businesses closed and so many people staying at home as a result of social-distancing orders, the COVID-19 pandemic has led some property owners to reconsider how they handle rent. Columbia is no different: On March 20, in response to the economic effects of the novel coronavirus, the university sent a statement announcing that it would waive April and May rents to some of the small-business owners who lease over 600,000 square feet of Columbia-owned retail space in West Harlem and other neighborhoods surrounding their Morningside Heights campus. Student tenants, however, were not so lucky.

Hundreds of the school’s graduate students are worried about how they’ll afford rent over the next few months as they face financial struggles with lost part-time work and funding opportunities. The doctoral students, who live in the university’s apartment housing and also work at the school, are now organizing a rent strike and pushing for rent relief.

Manuela Luengas, a second-year Ph.D student at Columbia, is one of those students. Her sole income during the school year comes from a nine-month scholarship that she receives for teaching Spanish at the school. Luengas is also an international student, from Colombia, and since the borders of the country are closed due to the pandemic, she can’t go back at the end of the semester.

Usually, she sublets her apartment during the summer while she moves somewhere cheaper (as many Columbia students do), and she takes up other jobs in the city. But this year, thanks both to the novel coronavirus and a new university policy that restricts subletters to Columbia-affiliated individuals, Luengas hasn’t been able to find someone to sublet her apartment, or another job.

“No one’s going to come to New York, especially if Columbia courses are online during the summer,” Luengas says. “We don’t have options. We don’t have enough money to stay in New York or to pay the rent.”

The university has so far offered students living in the school’s housing up to $500 to move out this month. The school has also offered to waive the early lease termination fee of $1,000 for students who were looking to move out of their apartments in March, and has provided them with prorated rent based on their move-out date, Columbia tells Curbed. Undergrads who remain in the dorms are also being given until the end of May to move out.

The school says that out of 5,000 grad students living in residential housing, more than 1,000 moved out before their lease-end date. But because of the current stay-at-home order and the statewide pause on nonessential businesses, many still living in Columbia housing don’t think the school is offering them a viable solution to their current financial and living situation.

A survey conducted by the Columbia People’s Coronavirus Response group, a coalition of student-led organizations, found that almost 80 percent of 343 students who responded anticipated having problems with paying rent over the next six months due to loss of part-time jobs they had lined up or external research grants that were terminated, among other reasons. According to the survey, the average monthly rent for students who responded is $1,495.50.

With the end of the semester coming on May 15, and economic pressures mounting, hundreds of students are pushing for a rent strike, as many doctoral students who are not eligible for the university’s summer stipend would not have any funds to cover rent come June 1.

“Because the university is no longer paying me and I have no work opportunities really, also no grant opportunities. ... I can’t pay rent,” says Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman, a sixth-year Ph.D student who is no longer eligible for summer funding. (She has since been able to secure a summer job, but is still concerned about rent.)

In order to “assist with a range of challenges and contingencies that our students are facing during the COVID-19 emergency,” Columbia announced on April 20 that it would offer additional funding for doctoral students during the summer months.

For the more than 1,000 doctoral students who typically get nine months of funding, the school offered up to $3,000 per student as additional stipend for the summer in response to the pandemic. Half of that amount will be automatically disbursed to “eligible students” before June 1 without the need to apply, while the rest of it, $1,500, will require students to apply and will be disbursed to students who don’t have summer employment at the school.

But several Ph.D students have said that’s not enough, given the cost of living in New York City and the amount in rent they would have to pay every month. “I don’t have a summer job lined up, so that money would essentially go toward paying rent to Columbia,” Luengas says.

“We believe that in solidarity with rent strikes happening all over the city, that this is a moment in which we can act,” says Lexie Cook, a fifth-year doctoral student and graduate student workers’ union organizer. “We can withhold our rent as a protest against the ongoing gentrification of Harlem and the community that surrounds Columbia and its sort of super-landlord status in New York.”

The coronavirus only exacerbated the graduate students’ financial situation, against which they had already been organizing. Graduate student workers at Columbia, members of GWC-UAW Local, had been negotiating with the university for better pay and better health benefits before the virus struck. In early March, the union had voted to strike following disagreements over harassment policies and health benefits, the Columbia Spectator reported, but because of the pandemic, that plan was stymied.

Now, a group of graduate students who were teaching online have been on a labor strike since April 24, with demands centered on the hardships they’re facing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The union didn’t approve the strike this time, but recognized the importance of “the student workers’ rights to engage in collective action.”

Early this week, shortly after the labor strike began, several graduate students received an email from the school, which Curbed reviewed, asking if they had missed a day of teaching last week, and warning them that if they were participating in the strike, pay would be deducted.

Through the labor and rent strikes, the students are now demanding the school provide additional funding (up to $6,000 in summer funding to students who won’t be eligible for the full $3,000 offered by the school), automatic lease extensions, rent cancellation in the university’s apartment housing, and stopping the practice to connect a student’s academic status to their rent payments (which can hinder registration and can affect international students’ visa status).

Though Columbia University students are far from alone in their fight for better working conditions, the power structure is uniquely complicated at the school, where graduate students rely on the university for their employment, student status, and a roof over their heads.

“Columbia is both employer and landlord, so it’s absolutely in their power to dictate the terms of what our rent is, what our salary is,” Cook says. “The university has vast reserves of wealth and it is absolutely able to provide for all of us in this moment in time.”

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