Student cost of living, part II
By Dan Clark
Frozen, But Worth It
For the entire month of March 2013, when temperatures were often below freezing, Rich Serrano depended on his space heater to keep his bedroom warm at night.
The heater, which is no larger than an average microwave, was kept on while he slept, and during the day if he was at home. Often, though, the tense relationship he had with his roommates drove him to spend most of his free time on campus or at friends’ apartments. It helped that most of these places had heat that he could take advantage of, too.
He had been living in downtown Albany since June of 2012, and according to him, that summer was the best of his life. He worked part time at Price Chopper as a cashier, which helped to pay for his $450 monthly rent, and even took a few summer courses.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t make time for fun, though. As late as 5 a.m., he could often be found creeping quietly into his apartment when he had no reason to wake up anytime soon after.
When September came, he started to ask his two roommates how they were going to heat the house. His roommates had lived in the same house the year before and had bought oil to heat the house with. Serrano, who was 22 and moving into an apartment for the first time, trusted their judgment. They bought enough oil that, split between the three of them, came out to $100 each for the whole winter.
That oil lasted until the end of February, and the two roommates had no interest in buying any more. The three took to alternative methods of heating. They bought space heaters, and used them either in their bedrooms or in a common area, depending on where they were going to spend the most time. They used the oven to prepare meals as often as they could.
When it came to coming home late with no heat, though, the only solace Serrano had was a blanket until the space heater made the room comfortable.
According to Serrano, though, it’s worth the $4,500 that he saved last academic year by living off campus.
Unlike Residential Life, landlords are not obligated to include utilities like heat and electricity in the amount they charge students. This means that students often make the choice of how much electricity to use, or how warm they want their apartment to be. That also means that they decide how high their bill from National Grid will be.
According to data from the energy supplier, Serrano pays well below the average for utilities. Patrick Stella, who heads Media Relations for National Grid, says households typically spend between $175 and $185 each month on heat and electricity.
At least $85 of that is usually heat alone, according to Stella, so despite space heaters, Serrano still manages to spend less.
“It was like, $35, $40 a month,” said Serrano about the apartment’s utility bills during warmer months. “Not bad.”
That’s opposed to the average of anywhere up to $150 for the entire apartment during colder months when you factor in the money spent on heating oil and electricity to power the space heaters.
A Higher Price
Not every house is the same, according to Patrick Stella.
“Usage and households differ so much,” said Stella, who monitors data for National Grid in the United States. “You could have two homes with the same square footage, same type, but one is insulated better with newer, energy efficient appliances.”
When a student rents an apartment, though, those are investments that they are not responsible for. That’s according to John Fenemore, a member of the Capital District Association of Rental Property Owners who used to rent houses to students around the College of St. Rose in downtown Albany.
“When I looked at it, I saw my competition and I could make improvements in the efficiency of the building, mainly the heating of the system,” said Fenemore. “I can get a higher price.”
In the end, according to Fenemore, that’s what it’s all about: the price. The rent that landlords charge students is based on several factors, but at the top of that list is the fair market price and the surrounding competition.
“It was a matter of what I always paid, what was being paid elsewhere, and what kind of setup I could get,” Fenemore said. Some apartments have benefits that drive prices up, like multiple bathrooms and larger kitchens, and landlords are not above charging over what is considered a fair market price.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the fair market rent price for an apartment with three bedrooms in Albany County is $1,041. That’s $300 below what Serrano and his roommates pay together for their apartment. Even Nettles and her roommates are paying $400 more than the fair market price for a four bedroom apartment.
For Fenemore, though, it’s all about the profit that landlords expect to make, which he says is usually around 10 percent of what they invested in the residence. That’s compared to the 2.8 percent profit that Residential Life is expected to have this year.
The Two-Year Requirement
But, despite being charged more than the fair market price, students like Serrano and Nettles have less to pay for. Students living on campus pay into Residential Life for what it costs to house them like Senior Associate Director Perrin said, but for residents, there are more costs and no choice in paying for them.
While students receive countless services that appear to be free, like Apogee’s wireless Internet, those benefits come included in the room charge with no choice to opt out.
“It’s like paying a mortgage,” said Perrin, whose salary is paid for with money that the department takes in from students. Administrative salaries including hers were expected to total as much as $3.7 million last academic year. That’s only half of what residence hall maintenance is expected to cost. This budget line includes the custodial workers who are hired to clean around the quads and inside residence halls — including the students’ bathrooms.
According to Perrin, these costs are associated with the benefits students receive living on campus, but Kozlowski is skeptical.
“I think that’s outrageous for what you’re getting,” said Kozlowski, in response to knowing how much the department takes in from students to provide these services. “It’s a waste of my money.”
That’s money that’s coming in from each student during the two years they are required to live on campus. Residential Life offers students the option to submit a release request from the two-year requirement, but according to Perrin, it’s never guaranteed that students will be able to move off campus before their third year.
That request has to include information from a third party, like an employer, to prove that the student is having trouble paying room rates. Even that request implies that students will save money by moving off campus, and it’s not wrong.
The Refund Check
Students living off campus have the option to give up amenities that they receive automatically on campus. Instead of plugging in to Time Warner Cable, students off-campus can subscribe to Netflix and Hulu Plus. Each charge $8 per month for their customers to stream unlimited movies, and in the case of Hulu, television shows that were aired as recently as the day before. With the addition of a $10 HDMI cable that will connect a laptop to their television, students can experience movies and television on the big screen at a fraction of the cost.
More active students may be concerned about losing access to the gyms stationed on each quad, but off-campus students are allowed to use the on-campus gym at SEFCU Arena for free.
Those sweaty gym clothes aren’t going to wash themselves, though. While off-campus students like Serrano are lucky enough to have a clothes washer and dryer included in their house, some are forced to take their laundry to a laundromat.
If the student does not have a vehicle, the trek can be even more of a hassle than carrying a full hamper to the dormitory basements. Those are basements that also include study rooms and vending machines for students willing to pay for late night snacks, two of the many features of the dormitories that Kumparatana says make the experience comfortable.
“Living on campus is OK,” said Kumparatana, who, between her parents and financial aid never had to pay out of pocket by herself to live on campus, “It’s not fantastic or the place I wanted to be, but it’s not awful.”
Serrano agrees, especially about the food.
“You save money on gas, you don’t have to worry about parking, and food is accessible,” said Serrano. While he enjoys being independent and having his own space, now, “the turkey meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes were great.”
Despite receiving these same benefits, though, the cost of room and board on campus has increased steadily over the past four years, according to the department’s website. That’s not to say that it was stable before then, but data is only available from 2009 to this year. When asked if room rates would ever go down, Perrin wasn’t too optimistic.
“There have been years where we haven’t had to increase the room rates,” Perrin said. According to her, those increases come from increased maintenance costs and new construction projects, like the renovation of Mohawk Tower.
Nettles does not miss that increase in cost. After living in her apartment for the first year, she signed on for another year-long lease.
“It’s been really great. I love living off -campus,” said Nettles, who is now in her fourth year at the university’s pre-med program, and Serrano agrees.
“I wouldn’t move back on campus,” said Serrano, who just finished his undergraduate degree in public policy last spring. He moved off campus between his third and fourth year at the university, and by March 2013, Kozlowski was gearing up to do the same.
According to her, she’ll be saving about $700 per month by moving downtown. The money she saves will be given to her through a refund check that the university provides to students whose financial aid exceeds the university’s tuition and fees.
“I won’t have to worry about paying all this money that’s not going to use just for me,” said Kozlowski, who also moved off campus to gain independence. “Living off campus, you have more freedom. I think it’s a good experience to have.”
This piece was part two of a series