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UVM grad student on new university housing development planned for South Burlington

An architectural rendering shows an apartment building with people outside.
Courtesy
/
University of Vermont
An architectural rendering of the proposed Catamount Run housing project for UVM graduate students, faculty and staff.

The University of Vermont last week announced plans to build a new housing development for graduate students, faculty and staff.

Catamount Run will bring 295 apartments — and nearly 500 beds — to South Burlington City Center, according to the university. That’s within a 1.5-mile radius of UVM’s Burlington campus.

And it’s the university’s first housing development outside of campus.

The development will come online in phases, with plans to have 170 beds ready by summer 2024, and the rest finished within the following two years.

UVM will invest roughly $22 million in the project, which is being completed in partnership with developer Snyder-Braverman.

Under the plan approved by UVM trustees last month, the university must earn a return on its investment and recoup its initial equity payment after 10 years.

To learn more about the project and the housing crisis currently facing students, Vermont Public's Mary Engisch spoke with Justin MH Salisbury, who's president of the UVM graduate student Senate and a research assistant in the College of Education and Social Services. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: To start, we know affordable housing availability is a huge issue across Chittenden County and the whole state right now. But how is the housing crunch specifically affecting graduate students and those who are considering joining the university?

A man smiles for the camera.
Courtesy
/
University of Vermont
Justin MH Salisbury

Justin MH Salisbury: What we hear from graduate students is largely that pretty much our entire stipends — if we're blessed with a research assistantship or a teaching assistantship — pretty much our entire stipends are spent on housing. And so then we have to find out ways to feed ourselves and do other things that people need with very little funding set aside separately from our checks. And so frequently, we're grateful for the opportunity to study here, but once we get here, sometimes we find ourselves in really difficult situations. And sometimes there are students who decide they're coming to the University of Vermont, who then start looking for housing and later inform the university that "Actually no, we're not coming. We couldn't find housing." It's a big challenge.

One thing that has been really helpful to a lot of students is the availability of food pantries, particularly even one that's operated on campus where we can go and get food without paying for it. And frequently, I see just as many grad students, on the days that I go to the food pantry, in the food pantry as I do outside the food pantry. Because that is a place where we're all going, because we all need that support. Because quite frankly, the cost of trying to feed ourselves separately after we've paid for our housing is quite incredible.

What are your first thoughts on this housing project, Catamount Run? What do you think about its proximity to campus and public transportation, those kinds of quality-of-life factors.

I think the access to public transportation is very important. And the area where it is appears to be not far from where, for example, the number one bus route runs to get people to the university mall area. I think that from what I hear from students, there are a lot of graduate students — especially international students — coming here without cars. And Burlington can be a difficult place to live if you don't have a car. If we put it in a place with access to public transportation, which was indeed something that in all the discussions I heard leading up to this was an important consideration — we can get people to and from campus, but also to and from the amenities that they might need. Because if you can get to campus, but you can't get to a grocery store — you're still going to struggle.

So I think that ultimately, from everything that we've been hearing, I think it's still too early to tell what the pulse of the graduate student body is completely on this project. We know that we've been begging for housing and begging for something to be done about the housing shortage for a long time, but because our awareness of this project is just as new as everyone else's, we don't necessarily have much more detailed analysis to give yet. We're still learning about what it will actually be for us.

Dartmouth College recently opened a new off-campus apartment building. But there's been criticism from graduate students in Hanover that those apartments are still too expensive.

The nature of graduate school often leaves students with limited budgets, as you've been addressing. We don't know how much the Catamount Run apartments will cost. But how important is affordability for students here?

Affordability is critical. Affordability is a daily conversation for graduate students. It's a pressure that we all feel. It is a cloud that hangs over us as we try to focus on being a student — it is something that we are very eager to to find progress in that area. But we don't know exactly what this will bring.

One thing that is certainly powerful is when the university owns the housing and the university can set the rent. And so the university really has a lot of control over what the gap is between our stipends and our rent. It's it's too early to tell what will actually happen with that. But we are definitely hoping that the leaders who are making decisions about what to charge for rent will also be able to pay attention to the broader cost of living and what we're getting paid and make sure that something is feasible.

What do you think the impact is to graduate students at UVM if the housing issue isn't sufficiently addressed?

Well, there are graduate students that, sadly, will sometimes tell the rest of us, "You know, guys, I'm not coming back next year." And that is a really sad thing to be hearing. But it is a question that lives in a lot of our minds. I'd be remiss if I said that it wasn't on my mind sometimes, because the ability to pay to come here is part of what makes it possible for us to go to school. I hate seeing when students simply have to give up on their dreams of a UVM education because they can't afford it. That's a really heartbreaking thing to notice. But it is happening to people. And I don't have numbers on exactly what percentage, but we want to do everything we can, as a community, to make sure that that people can pursue their dreams of a UVM education.

Justin, in terms of recruiting and keeping new students, how do you think that this is impacting the university's ability to do that?

I think it's possible for us to use this as an opportunity to celebrate progress. And I think we should celebrate progress when we have progress. When we bring people in for tours, we can tell them about the new housing progress that we've made. When we advertise our graduate programs and the applications for them, we can tell them we're building housing for graduate students. And in that way, it will help. But again, the overall shortage is a function of more than just the amount of beds that we have. It's also it's the difference between the number of beds that we have and the number of people competing for those beds.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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