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Measuring the Value of Student Housing

CUNY student speaks out about the struggle for affordable, and accessible dorm life.

P.M. Campbell

April 4, 2023
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Photo by Sara Dee

CUNY Hunter College’s Brookdale Residence Hall is home to over 600 Hunter College students, where residents have a unique opportunity to foster community through social, educational, and cultural programs. It is organized by Resident Assistants, and a quick commute from New York City’s cultural hotspots and classes. Brookdale is unique in its affordability among CUNY housing, costing students less than $10,000 per academic year, but the dorm is currently in danger.

 On October 13, 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayer Eric Adams publicized the creation of an “Education Hub” at Brookdale Campus without mentioning that creating this Hub would require the  ultimate destruction of the dorms located there. Former Brookdale Resident and Macaulay Honors College graduate, Sara D, organized a group of students and alumni “advocating for the institutions we want CUNY to preserve” after community concerns fell on deaf ears at the  Manhattan Borough Hearing 10/17. This group, their allies, and supporters now rally behind the title Back Brookdale.  

The foremost demand of Back Brookdale’s platform holds that the Science Park and Research Campus (SPARC) must not eliminate the existence of the Brookdale Dorm without providing an adequate replacement for Hunter College students. Our other three demands: 

2.  That the necessary granted funds be allocated to refurbish the dorms in terms of livability and accessibility

3. That future housing must remain affordable

4. That any deviation from housing at Brookdale must come with the IMMEDIATE announcement of an affordable, and accessible alternative. 

Those who Back Brookdale maintain that to demolish the City University of New York’s (CUNY) most accessible housing, after decades of neglect, will leave an indelible mark on not only Hunter, but also on CUNY and the city of New York. SPARC will leave lower class students of color with one less option for housing.

When SPARC was unveiled in October, it was estimated to generate a value of $25 billion within the next thirty years. It is not, however, interested in the merit of its dorming students and alumni, and has not been open about any economic hardships. By omitting reference to the severance of housing, the announcement maintains that the value of the thousands of students who have lived at Brookdale is irrelevant. How does one measure the accolades of the tens of thousands of former Brookdale residents? Can their academic achievements and professional accolades be converted to the gold standard? And by what means can the value of a future of housing be weighed against a project like SPARC? 

CUNY’s mission is to afford accessible education, expanding the model of the “average scholar,” and as the university deviates from that mission,  rates of homelessness among students increase. CUNY prides itself on being an “engineer of social mobility,” with 85% of 2019’s incoming undergraduates being people of color and half from households with incomes below $30,000. However, at least 55% of CUNY students were facing housing insecurity and at least 14% were experiencing homelessness. Housing insecurity includes a broad set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities, or the need to move frequently, while homelessness means that a person does not have a stable place to live. A CUNY-conducted study indicates that, “non-traditional students who are more likely to be older, financially independent, support children, and work more than 20 hours a week are at a high risk of being housing insecure.” Homelessness and housing insecurity comes at a cost. Another article estimates that homelessness can cost taxpayers around$35,000 – $40,500 per year per person without a home, and this cost can only increase depending on risk factors such as mental illness. 

Additionally, there is the undeniable link to homelessness and the prison industrial complex. The NYS website boasts the creation of a “Career Pipeline,” yet ignores the existing school-to-prison pipeline, which the absence of practical living contributes to. The cost of incarceration and its priceless impact was surely not included in the state’s $25 billion estimation. Those with genuine intentions must ask if this is the situation in which some of CUNY’s most affordable dorms should be eliminated.  CUNY, Hunter, and those involved in SPARC have an ethical responsibility to actively conserve affordable housing. The alternative puts Brookdale residents at an increased risk for homelessness and further instability. The demolition of Brookdale directly contradicts CUNY’s mission statement to “provide a public first-rate education to all students, regardless of means or background.”

Those who Back Brookdale believe that a revised, affordable, and accessible dorm life can and must be presented simultaneously with the coming science initiative. This is not a dismissal of the robust value that will come from SPARC, but there has been an explicit dismissal of past and future student residents on the part of the project. We are not in conflict with groups like 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers, LEXEO Therapeutics, NewYorkBIO, and Waterside Tenants Association, who spoke in support of the new campus. We do, however, ask those involved on every level of the SPARC project to advocate for the dorm space. Both those who contribute to the initiative and those who will benefit must speak up and make space for those who have been excluded from the conversation: the residents, students, and alumni. This is only an explanation of the first point in our mission statement, and expansion on the following three will come in time. 

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