Opinion guest column

We are unionizing for quality and affordable housing

Our living conditions are our working conditions

Graduate student-workers come to MIT to conduct research and teach for a better world. We want to understand how things work and are passionate about research. But we also generate billions of dollars for MIT. MIT as an institution has always reaped financial benefits from our work: its funding and worldwide reputation as a top research university follow from the experiments we run and the code we write. However, while MIT’s net assets exploded from $24 billion in 2020 to over $36 billion in 2021, graduate student-workers remain as we always have: severely rent-burdened by U.S. federal standards, paying on average 55% of our stipends in rent due to policies of MIT’s administration.

The need for quality and affordable housing for graduate student-workers is a workplace issue because our living conditions are our working conditions. When a grad worker is stressed about making rent, rationing meals, or spending significant amounts of time dealing with repairs required due to MIT’s decades of deferred maintenance, it hampers our ability to perform and focus on our research and teaching. Below are just two of the countless stories regarding housing issues that graduate student-workers are facing.

Lexy’s story: Edgerton

Shortly after moving into our Edgerton apartment at the beginning of August, my roommates and I noticed water dripping down from the ceiling in our living room. Housing shut off the central air and placed a window air conditioning unit in the common space, claiming that the water was condensation on the pipes caused by the temperature being set too low. About a week later, we noticed mold on the ceiling in our closet, so they removed the ceiling panel but did not replace it, exposing the pipes above. These pipes also started dripping, forming a large puddle and rendering our closet unusable. In addition, the dripping water in the living room persisted, so we contacted housing again and they covered the pipes with rags and duct tape, informing us that a more permanent solution would require five to ten days of work, cutting open the ceiling and replacing the hatch. Given that the repairs would substantially disrupt our living space, we opted to hold off on the repairs until IAP.

When we later faced problems with our toilets overflowing and flooding the bathroom, failing to flush properly, and making strange noises, housing was slow to arrive, and their fixes were not real solutions.

Although each of these issues were eventually addressed, the added stress of dealing with these problems has detracted from my coursework and research and impacted my mental health. Having a clean and functioning living space is very important to me. Others have similarly endured uninhabitable living conditions, including mold and broken plumbing in Ashdown. All people deserve dignified and safe living conditions. And given what we pay for rent and how wealthy MIT is, we deserve better. 

Belinda’s story: Site 4

For many Site 4 residents, the price of rent is overwhelming. The efficiency apartment, the cheapest option at Site 4, is priced at $2,274 per month. This is egregious considering that the baseline monthly stipend rates established by MIT are $3,186 for pre-candidacy research assistants and $3,488 for post-candidacy doctoral research assistants. Thus, even the cheapest Site 4 option can be as high as 71% of some workers’ monthly stipend. It’s absurd that MIT deems these rates to be affordable.

As a Site 4 resident myself, most months I make barely enough to break even. I’m constantly looking for places to save, and often forgo meals if I’m “not hungry enough” to warrant the extra cost. I find myself stressing about my budget when I should be allocating that time and energy towards research.

I had resigned to my fate that my entire time at MIT would be spent like this. After all, I was simply a solitary individual and couldn’t possibly tell MIT to change its housing policies or prices. But then I learned how housing and rent were central issues for grad workers building our union and how many people were facing the same issues as me. With the help of other grad workers in our union, I organized a dorm visit at Site 4. There, I got a chance to hear stories from my neighbors: many of us put Site 4 low in priority during the lottery but were placed here despite ample vacancies in other buildings. Several unlucky individuals have gotten stuck in elevators, some have dealt with peeling paint and murky water, and others still with broken heating. Complaints were filed but not addressed promptly. The front desk was short-staffed. And almost everyone agreed that the rent was too high.

These issues are not isolated incidents, but rather widely felt across all graduate residences. We have tried advocating for more affordable housing for decades through the Graduate Student Council and student governments within each residence, but to no avail. This is because MIT’s administrators prioritize profits over people and research.

Unionizing will address the underlying causes of these problems

The root causes of all of these issues are that MIT’s administration maintains unilateral control over our working and living conditions and that we must each deal with our issues alone. Unionizing directly addresses both of these issues. With a legally recognized union, MIT must negotiate with us. And although housing is not a so-called mandatory subject of bargaining, MIT admin is 100% able to negotiate with our union on these issues. When they say otherwise, it’s because MIT’s administrators would prefer to leave us severely rent-burdened and without quality housing rather than respectfully negotiate with our union. MIT — with its immense wealth derived from our work — can surely subsidize housing (as Stanford does by 30%) and improve the safety and quality of the living spaces we occupy.

Unionizing will usher in a qualitative change in that none of us will ever be alone as we try to navigate mold, brown water, and broken heaters. We will have access to a powerful grievance procedure to address our specific housing issues. And we’ll have our union of thousands of grad workers standing together to insist on safe, quality, and affordable housing.

We don’t have to suffer in silence! Through the power of collective organization, we can do something to change our situation.

Vote yes to unionizing on April 4 and 5 for affordable and quality housing, and sign the Vote Yes Petition at https://mitgsu.org/vote-yes-petition!

Lexy LeMar is a first-year PhD student in Chemical Engineering, resident in Edgerton, and organizer with the MIT Graduate Student Union (GSU).

Belinda Li is a second-year PhD student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, resident in Site 4, and organizer with the MIT GSU.

Thejas Wesley is a fifth-year PhD student in Chemical Engineering, resident in Edgerton, and organizer with the MIT GSU.