IOWA CITY — When Sam Lustgarten moved into the Hawkeye Court apartments for his first year of graduate school at the University of Iowa, his Cambus ride to class was a melting pot of languages, ethnicities, cultures, gender and class.
Now three years later, he said, his bus ride is much less interesting. Mostly white, single, affluent students sit next to him on the Cambus he takes from the Aspire at West Campus apartments — which the UI contracted to replace its aging graduate student Hawkeye Court apartments in 2014.
And Lustgarten said he expects it to stay that way, although he won’t be around to see. The 26-year-old, fourth-year psychology student and his roommate are moving after learning their rent is going up — again.
This time, the pair’s two-bedroom, two-bathroom monthly rate is jumping from $1,120 to $1,239. Since moving in to Aspire in 2014, their rent has increased from $1,100, or nearly 13 percent.
“That’s a lot of money for graduate students,” he said.
Concerned students like Lustgarten worry that the rapidly rising costs of living on campus could keep graduate prospects from even applying to the UI, creating a sort of reverse “brain drain” that would deprive the Corridor of incoming talent.
The group has reached out for help to UI President Bruce Harreld and property managers and started an online petition asking them to halt the increases.
“Aspire at West Campus is redefining graduate student housing into a wealthy elite apartment complex intended for those who make more than a fixed, annual, half-time stipend,” according to the petition that had gathered more than 475 signatures as of Wednesday night. “They’ve made apartment complexes for graduate students, but the graduate students cannot afford them.”
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The petition says students could pay “an average $60,000 in rent alone over the course of a five-year Ph.D.” if prices hold.
The group seeks to link rents and rent increases at Aspire to graduate assistantship salaries and increases. And, among other measures, the petition seeks a limit to how many units Aspire can rent to faculty and staff instead of grad students.
One graduate student also called on the university — and President Harreld specifically — to reach out to the Board of Regents and attempt to renegotiate a more “reasonable contract” with Balfour Beatty that would balance the decision-making power for rental rates.
“The Board of Regents signed a 41-year sweetheart lease and are restricted from outside employment,” according to a statement from the graduate student union. “Now this private company has been given a blank check to drive up rents far beyond what any graduate student can afford.”
Lustgarten said students haven’t succeeded in landing a meeting with Balfour Beatty Investments, which the university partnered with to construct the rental community and oversee its operations through a 40-year lease.
But after hearing from graduate student leaders Tuesday, Harreld issued a statement to “urge Balfour Beatty to listen to the concerns brought forth by our students as it relates to the increase in their rent.”
UI administrators said the institution’s power over rent rates is restricted. Balfour Beatty financed construction of the $31 million project and built the 270-unit complex. Although a committee including Balfour Beatty and UI officials governs the property, Balfour Beatty “has the controlling vote over rental rates and other financial aspects of the complex,” according to David Kieft, UI business manager and director of university real estate.
A Balfour Beatty spokeswoman told The Gazette that all rent rates are shared with the committee, giving UI officials time to express concerns. Company officials said recent rate bumps were driven by above-average increases in utility rates and real estate taxes.
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Kieft said the university expected rental rates at Aspire to be higher than at the former Hawkeye Court apartments, which were built in the 1960s and needed work.
“There is no way the units could have been rebuilt without substantially increasing the rental rates,” Kieft said. “The rental rates would have been even higher if the university designed, built, owned and operated the complex itself.”
Balfour Beatty is entering the second phase of UI graduate student construction, announcing a deal to construct a $34.5 million Phase 2 project to complete the Aspire at West Campus. The second phase, which will include 252 units, is expected to be complete in August.
The company said Aspire is 99.8 percent occupied. Maureen Omrod, director of marketing and communications for Balfour Beatty, said renewals for the next term, which begins in August, “actually are going along well.”
She questioned whether the student concerns were representative of the whole graduate student population. And UI officials stressed that Aspire is not the only option — grad students could live off-campus.
But some graduate students say doing so could harm their community and discriminate against low-income students.
Paul Ranum, a 27-year-old second-year UI graduate student and Aspire tenant who plans to move, said the UI and Harreld have a chance to advocate for students “with zero cost” to the institution.
“We are asking him to stand up to this private company,” Ranum said.