UCSF Unions Unite to Demand Lower Rent

San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis has not spared UCSF, and now residents relying on UC Housing are teaming up to demand lower rents.

UC Housing shelters 2,000 students, postdocs, residents, clinical fellows, faculty, and staff. Last year, a survey by UC’s Union of Postdocs and Academic researchers showed that 90% of academic student employees and over 70% of postdocs are rent-burdened.

On February 24, UCSF unions held a rally demanding affordable housing in front of Genentech Hall and the Mission Bay housing. During the event, students, postdocs, and academics shared their ​stories of experiencing rent burden, and listened to tenant testimonials.

“What we're asking for today is the elimination of rent burden at UCSF ​and across the UC system," said Matthew Ryan, MD/PhD candidate and Student Researchers United-UAW ​bargaining team representative at UCSF.

Ryan highlighted the disparate living conditions of most student researchers and postdocs compared to the Chancellor.

“We are in this fight together,” he said. “And with a unified front, I am certain we will secure a great contract so that we can live, work, and learn with the dignity we deserve.”

Matthew Ryan, MD/PhD candidate and Student Researchers United-UAW bargaining team representative at UCSF, speaks to a crowd during a February 24 rally in front of Genentech Hall and the Mission Bay housing demanding affordable housing.

Rent-burdened, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, means that a person must spend more than 30% of their salary on rent, and severe rent burden means paying more than 50% on housing.

Results from the UC union survey showed that postdocs living in UCSF Housing pay an average of 47% of their income to UCSF in rent.

Last year, the unions got together to bargain for a reprieve from that burden and to fight for equity issues.

“UC is the employer who sets the pay scale and also sets rental housing rates, thereby creating a lopsided power imbalance between employee and employer,” said bargaining team member Jade Moore. “For example, postdocs earn 50% below the average salary in San Francisco [around] $78,000 per year.”

In contrast, chancellors received a considerable pay increase on average of 18%.

“UCSF chancellor receives [around] $860,000 per year, being one of the highest-paid in the state," Moore said. “This highlights the misplaced priorities of the UC. Instead, they should invest in the people who are doing the research and teaching that makes us a world-class institution.

“If UC wants to continue recruiting and retaining talent on the world stage, they need to invest in their employees and make it sustainable to work and live in one of the most expensive markets in the nation.”

The bargaining team drafted an open letter titled “united for a fair workplace” demanding a joint bargaining table, which would become the most significant bargaining section in the history of UC and UAW.

Last July, a representative from the bargaining team met with the UCSF Chancellor to discuss the need for affordable housing.

There, the team highlighted how other institutions in expensive markets like Boston and New York are addressing affordable housing for their academic researchers.

“At Weill-Cornell, the housing is less than 30% of income. In addition, housing is guaranteed for all first-year students and allows them to live in it for up to 7 years," Moore said.

“Our immediate, specific ask to the Chancellor included (1) reducing rent by at least 25% to alleviate the current burden and (2) providing flexible leasing options at no additional charge.”

UC Responds

UCSF Housing offers rental properties at Parnassus, Mount Zion, and Mission Bay campuses, and family housing at Aldea San Miguel and along 5th avenue.

Rent alone enables UCSF Housing Services to maintain their program, facilities, and expansion for future demand.

In response to the declining San Francisco rental market during the pandemic, campus housing reduced monthly rental rates on 83% of their apartments, an average of $102-per-month per apartment, according to Leslie Santos, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Housing and Wellbeing Service.

“A recent third-party study identified that all but 4% of our units are below market. The small number of units that are slightly above market is in the process of being lowered,” Santos said.

UCSF Housing’s advantages are the campus’ proximity to UCSF facilities, and they do not require an application fee for renting. This helps international scholars who have no local bank account or credit record.

“I chose to live here because it was already furnished and close to my classes,” said Hana, a recent tenant from The Tidelands. “I think the price of the place is fair given that it’s in San Francisco and conveniently located on campus.”

In 2019, Housing Services extended the lease term limit that allows tenants to live on campus from two to five years, enabling most of them to stay for their whole program.

Last year, they offered month-to-month leasing after a six-month term as an alternative for those with less than a year of affiliation. After the six months, tenants had the flexibility to terminate their lease with a 30 day written notice.

Housing Services also released students from penalties for breaking leases during the pandemic, said Santos. This offer ended in November 2021.

The UC is also very engaged with California SB169, Santos said. The initiative was announced in the Fall of 2021 and includes a three-year, one-time grant program to support affordable, low-cost housing options for students enrolled in public post-secondary educational institutions in the UC, State, and community colleges.

“Although UCSF did not have any projects at that preparedness stage,” said Santos, “we did receive clarification that housing for the trainee population would qualify under this ‘student’ initiative. We anticipate there will be a call for proposals in FY23 and FY24, and we hope to participate in these.”

USPS won’t deliver

Besides the rent burden, the Tidelands tenants have other complaints. One of them is the mail system.

"When I moved from Mission Bay into The Tidelands, I realized that I could not change my address with USPS to forward my mail in the future," said Mark, a Ph.D. Neuroscience candidate.

He used to live in Mission Bay in the middle of his program and moved out to Tidelands due to the previous term limit of two years.

"There is no guarantee of delivering during the weekend, which can represent a delay. However, the most interesting issue about the mail system is that USPS informed me that I could not change my forwarding address because UCSF registered The Tidelands as a business address instead of residential," he said.

This caused Tidelands tenants to be unable to receive free at-home COVID-19 tests ordered on www.covidtests.gov and delivered by USPS.

"The manner in which USPS recognizes the Tidelands came as a surprise to UCSF Housing," said Santos.

She said in all other UCSF Housing properties, USPS delivers mail to individual tenant mailboxes. But USPS has improperly classified the Tidelands as a ‘dormitory’ instead of an apartment complex.

"We have been working with USPS to resolve this issue since we opened the Tidelands in summer 2019,” Santos said.

She said UCSF filed formal complaints with the USPS central federal office and championed a lobbying campaign where tenants wrote letters to the local USPS Regional Manager, copied to Bay Area politicians Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Senator Alex Padilla, and Senator Dianne Feinstein.

They’ve also retained Washington, DC, lawyers to represent the tenants with more letter writing and complaint filing.

“To date, we have not been able to get the local USPS Postmaster or managers to deliver directly to Tidelands tenants. However, we will continue to strategize and make additional efforts,” Santos said.

International scholar Lizeth said she’s happy with her living quarters.

“I live in a 2-bedroom apartment in The Tidelands,” she said. “I have a nice space, and my stay has been very comfy.”

Nevertheless, spaces designed for a single person drew criticism. Zehra, a visiting scholar, who chose the smallest space called an efficiency room, said kitchen smells encroached her space to the point of permeating her bedding.

Mark said his efficiency room is still expensive for what it offers.

"The plumbing, my shower had to get fixed twice," he said. “I have contacted them [Housing services] several times asking for their help, and even though they had already reviewed the installation and said it was ok, their reply was unsatisfying.

“The Tidelands is super close to campus, and it was a brand year building; it shouldn't have any maintenance left.”

On the other hand, Hana said, “the service has been good, I haven't interacted too much with the housing office, but maintenance has always been super friendly and helpful.”

Santos said UC Housing receives complaints of all kinds. Some of the more common concerns are roommate conflicts, packages, and internet connectivity, and plumbing-related issues.

“You would be surprised by what people flush down their toilets — anything from condoms to diapers,” she said.

For facilities-related concerns, tenants can make a maintenance request online. If urgent, they can call the UCSF facilities services customer service office available 24/7, at 415-476-2021. For general Housing-related questions, we encourage tenants to email [email protected] or call our main Housing Office at 415-514-4550.

UC Housing also has a customer service form on its website, which is routed to the appropriate staff member. There is also a feedback button on the website homepage, which directs tenants to a survey that is then routed to the appropriate staff member.

More Needs to Be Done

Despite UCSF Housing efforts, many researchers are still discouraged by the rent burden.

“We have still been bargaining,” Moore said. “We are asking for UC to commit that no postdoc will be rent-burdened. This is being done in two ways, (1) lower rents in UC-owned Housing, and (2) provide a subsidy to private-market housing. This subsidy is already offered to Residents in the UC system, so it is not a stretch to offer the same to postdocs.”

Anne Sapiro, Postdoctoral Scholar in Biochemistry Biophysics and UAW 5810 member of the bargaining team, urged people to look at the bigger picture.

“Housing is so important to us because many of us are rent burden and is a huge equity issue because we shouldn't be encouraging only rich people who have wealth outside of their jobs to come to do science,” she said.

“Science is gonna suffer horribly if it can only be done by people who are independently well being. We think that together, if we are 480,000 of us saying that we have the same problem, we hope that they will bargain with us and listen and address these problems.”