Friends of Forest Park Unite!

The Defend Forest Park blog is for all who wish to see affordable family housing at the University of New Hampshire, who feel that the tenants of Forest Park are getting a raw deal from the administration, and who feel human dignity trumps pretty new offices for the Department of Housing.

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2 responses to “Friends of Forest Park Unite!

  1. The following is a copy of a letter sent Forest Park resident/faculty member/tennant’s committee member Robin Sheriff addressed to her colleagues in the faculty in June 2006. It is a call for action and support amongst her colleagues during a time when the residents had banded together in refusal to sign new leases unless the rents were decreased. This standoff between the residents and the adminstration occurred in the summer of 2006. The administration eventually threatened mass-eviction, and with no other choice this led to the tennants’ giving in and accepting modest subsidies in the form of grants made available to student families. These grants did NOT make up for the rising rents, NOR were they anything more than a one-time deal – as the rents have continued to dramatically increase every year.

    June 12, 2006

    Dear Colleagues,

    I writing to you out of deep concern that both the letter and the spirit of the University’s diversity initiatives are currently under threat. I have included you on this e-mail list either because you serve in an official capacity with regard to the University’s diversity initiatives or because you are a faculty or community member whose past work reflects a commitment to promoting diversity and a spirit of fairness within our University.

    As many of you are already aware, Forest Park, the University’s on-campus housing for students with families and new and visiting faculty, is perhaps the most ethnically and linguistically diverse spot in all of New Hampshire. A majority of households in Forest Park are composed of graduate students and their spouses and children—and of these, most are from Asia and Africa, with others coming to UNH from the Middle East and Europe. In the past, Forest Park provided not just affordable housing in an overheated real estate market, but also, and just as critically, a real community in which international and minority students, new faculty, and their families felt secure, welcome, and supported by the University.

    Unfortunately, a variety of conditions have created a grossly insecure atmosphere in Forest Park, and this is particularly true for residents who are non-U.S. citizens. As you may have read in today’s (Monday, June 12, 2006) front-page story in the Portsmouth Herald, after a rent increase of 11.75 percent last year, the UNH Department of Housing is now imposing another increase of the same amount—a combined rent increase of over 23 percent in two years. For many residents, this pushes a very difficult situation into one that is simply untenable in financial terms. It is lamentable, to say the least, that mothers and fathers living here on our campus told me that they had difficulty putting food on their family’s table before this year’s proposed increase. Given the crisis created by the new increase, a majority of residents have organized themselves to protest the rent hike.

    As one strategy in this protest, residents have withheld their leases, which they received in May. As of June 10, the UNH Department of Housing has not negotiated with the residents but has instead threatened them with eviction, should they fail to turn in their leases by this Thursday, June 15th. (The threat of eviction was made via a letter from William Conk, Director of Housing, dated May 31st, and a memo from Michael Saputo, Assistant Director for Apartment Living, dated June 2nd.) Although the President and Provost have been alerted to the situation by residents, they have not, so far as residents know, attempted to mediate the dispute. In the post 9/11 climate, foreign students understandably have anxiety concerning their visa status. Yet, as of the evening of Sunday, June 11, a clear majority (approximately two thirds) of Forest Park residents have signed a statement, to be delivered to the offices of the President and Provost, that residents will continue to refuse to sign their leases until their terms have been met. Why have so many international students at Forest Park taken such grave risks in protesting the rent hike?

    A quick look at some numbers is revealing. Currently, most graduate students with families reside in two-bedroom apartments. (It should be noted that families of more than three are not permitted to reside in one-bedroom apartments.) In 2004, the rent for these small apartments (approximately 25’ by 25’) was $679. In 2005, the rent was raised to $759. Now, beginning in June 2006, the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Forest Park has been raised to $848. International students—who represent the majority at Forest Park—are all on either F1 or F2 visas; neither allows a student, or a student’s spouse to work outside their departments here at UNH. Stipends vary by department but as an example, consider that in the Department of Chemistry (the department of a significant number of Forest Park residents), stipends for masters students in the academic year 2005-2006 were $13,200. Those for PhD students were between $13,550 and $14,200. If students choose to work for 40 hours per week throughout the summer, they can make an additional $3,500. In most or all cases then, these stipend amounts represent the sole source of income for students and their families who are not U.S. citizens. Thus, if a masters student in the Department of Chemistry were to pay the new rental rate on a two-bedroom apartment ($10,176 a year), he or she would, during a 12 month period, have $3,374 (without a summer stipend) or $6874 (with a summer stipend) left over for all other expenses, including food and any childcare, or school-related fees. The financial profile for the families of PhD students is similarly grim.

    Many of you may come to the same conclusion I have: that many Forest Park residents have no choice but to protest this recent rent hike. Their demands, moreover, are reasonable: 1.) that rents remain at their current rate until May 31, 2007 and; 2.) that future increases match increases in the cost of living. An important thing to note is that protests over increases in rent have been on-going in Forest Park for more than a year. William Conk, in his explication of initial plans in his letter of January 31, 2005, wrote that “… we are predicting a potential rent increase of 20 to 22 percent for each of the next two years.” Residents have interpreted this to mean that over two years, rents would be raised an astounding 40 to 44 percent! As a result of meetings among Mr. Conk, the Forest Park tenant’s committee, other Forest Park residents, the GSO and the Graduate Council, the rent increase for 2005 was reduced to 11.75 percent. But again, the additional proposed increase would bring the combined two-year increase to more than 23 percent—putting Forest Park rents beyond the means of many of the families that reside there.

    The reason I am writing to you is because I want to call your attention not just to the situation at hand but to the dramatic contrast between the threat of eviction and the University’s stated mission to aggressively promote diversity within our University community. Letters to residents from William Conk over the previous year have insisted that given budgetary structures, the Department of Housing has no alternative but to raise rents to proposed levels. (These statement are made, for example, in the letters of January 31, 2005; December 1, 2005; and the most recent one of May 31, 2006.) Yet, in the discussion of the University’s diversity plan, it is stated that “…the intentions of this plan must be translated into the fabric of our budgets, our staffing decisions, and our annual operating plans in order to make a meaningful difference….” (“Diversity Strategic Plan,” April 7, 2005, page 4). On the same page, the document states, “This plan demonstrates our goal to continue to reinvigorate the University as an inclusive and welcoming place to study, work and live for all persons.” In April and May of this year, the University produced a video and hosted a banquet celebrating the diversity initiatives. The title for both was “Many Faces, One Mission: Inclusion.” Many of UNH’s diverse “faces” currently reside at Forest Park and are being threatened with a choice between a financially untenable situation or eviction.

    If you feel as I do that this situation is not only dire for the families involved but also for the reputation of the University (especially vis-à-vis the issue of the degree to which minority students are welcome on our campus), please contact William Conk, Director of Housing, and/or Provost Bruce Mallory (our ally in matters related to diversity) not later than Wednesday, June 14th, the day before the Department of Housing intends to begin eviction proceedings. Mr. Conk can be reached at 603-862-2120, or at william.conk@unh.edu. Provost Mallory can be reached at 603-862-3290, or bruce.mallory@unh.edu. Please feel free to forward this message to others you know who support efforts to build and preserve diversity on our campus.

    If you feel comfortable doing so, please send me a cc or bc copy of your e-mail.

    Thank you for your time and attention.

    Sincerely,
    Robin E. Sheriff
    Associate Professor of Anthropology

  2. David Heirtzler

    I have been astounded at how poorly the residents of Forest Park have been treated by University Housing all along, but particularly recently. Asking a student to pay over 60% of their income just for housing is bad, but asking it of families is criminal.

    I myself was a resident of Forest Park for 6 years between 1976 and 1982. At that time the average PhD student stipend was just over $3000/year, while the rent on a two bedroom apartment in Forest Park was nearly $180/month. Depending on summer work, that could mean anywhere from 50-70% of a student’s income went to housing. Nearly 30 years later, and the situation has not improved.

    I work right across the street from Forest Park, and it was quite difficult to watch my old home destroyed. It was especially hard to walk among the abandoned buildings just days before their destruction and notice that damages I know were sustained in the late 70’s had still not been repaired 30 years later. It was my experience then, as it is now, that the University tends to ignore student needs in this matter.

    David Heirtzler
    Project Engineer
    UNH Space Science Center

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