As COVID-19 puts financial strain on Evanston, students and residents are trying to cope by organizing rent strikes and petitioning to reduce spring quarter tuition. But some experts warn that these actions might have unforeseen consequences. The Ripple sat down with Hiranya Kamdar, organizer of the Tuition/Fees Reduction petition for Spring Quarter at NU, as well as Northwestern economics professor Martin Eichenbaum and CEO of Evanston Open Communities Mary Ellen Ball to learn about community efforts to lessen financial burdens during the pandemic.
MAYA RETER: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Maya Reter.
KALEN LUCIANO: I’m Kalen Luciano.
ANIKA MITTU: And I’m Anika Mittu. Welcome to The Ripple, a podcast on the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern community. With the stay-at-home order in Illinois shutting down businesses and schools across the state, some students have been struggling to deal with the financial impacts of COVID-19. Some have fought to reduce spring quarter tuition. Others have gone on rent strikes across the Evanston community. Stuck in a mix of uncertainties, some students are doing anything they can to get by.
HIRANYA KAMDAR: These are our circumstances. Like, people’s parents are getting laid off. Sure, the online lectures are great. They’re still given by top faculty, but it’s really not the same experience and nobody actually believes that it’s the same experience. No one really believes it’s worth the same exact price.
MAYA RETER: That was Hiranya Kamdar, the founder of the Tuition/Fees Reduction petition for Spring Quarter at NU. Inspired by a petition created by students at the University of Washington, Hiranya took it into his own hands to fight for a fair price tag for Northwestern tuition. Compared to semester schools, he thought the petition stood a chance.
HIRANYA KAMDAR: It’s not like the uphill battle that semester students are fighting in terms of getting money back that they’ve already paid for tuition because they’re in the middle of their term. But for us on the quarter system, this is a new term, so this was a legitimate opportunity to get our voices heard and make something happen.
MAYA RETER: In the petition, he also included an agreement with the university to guarantee that any reduction in tuition wouldn’t impact low-income students who receive financial aid. After gathering nearly 5,000 signatures, he sent the petition to the university’s administration.
HIRANYA KAMDAR: In response, the associate provost wrote, “We understand your concerns. And although we will not be reducing tuition for Spring Quarter, we can assure you that the faculty are working tirelessly to ensure that the online education will be high quality.” Which wasn’t really the response we were looking for.
ANIKA MITTU: Northwestern economics professor Martin Eichenbaum sympathizes with families who want reduced tuition, but he’s worried about how the reduction could impact future university services.
MARTIN EICHENBAUM: If we have less tuition revenue coming in, we’re going to have to cut back on other things that may be very harmful to the university over the long run. Look, I’ll give you an example. The university pays a lot, and we should, on counseling for students who are under stress, things of that nature. You could fire those people. You could save some money and return that in the form of tuition. Are we just not going to have psychological counseling? You know, that’s a really hard choice. If we don’t have the money coming in, we got to cut something, nothing’s for free.
ANIKA MITTU: Northwestern could avoid having to take away services by selling parts of the endowment. But Eichenbaum stresses that cutting into the endowment to make up for lost profits would also have lasting impacts.
MARTIN EICHENBAUM: We could get through this if we pile through the endowment and sell stuff at a loss. But that’s going to affect financial aid in the future. That’s gonna affect the quality of teaching in the future. That’s going to affect all the services that we do in the future. And so I think what President Shapiro and the board don’t want to do is destroy Northwestern’s future for the current generation of students.
ANIKA MITTU: But with an endowment of over $8 billion in 2019, Northwestern has been criticized for not using enough of its money to help those in a “once in a lifetime” crisis. Though some of their endowment has donor restrictions, the University still has over $4 billion in endowment funds without restrictions.
KALEN LUCIANO: Another financial fight in response to the pandemic is taking place in Evanston: rent strikes. The “Evanston: Demand Rent and Utility Freeze, Emergency Shelter” Facebook event provides an email template that residents can use to contact state officials to demand a rent freeze. However, Mary Ellen Ball, CEO of Open Communities, posted in the group urging participants to contact the organization before deciding to stop paying their rent.
MARY ELLEN BALL: We’ve been seeing rent strikes being organized, which is great. But it can’t just be done with a couple people being like, “I’m not gonna pay my rent and I’m on a rent strike.” It has to be done intentionally and legally. So Sheryl Ring, our legal director, has been able to mediate with the Chicago apartment alliance that covers 25,000 units in the Chicagoland area to have a very humane response to this. Because of her work, those 25,000 units now kind of have a framework around how and when landlords can collect rent.
There’s a lot of moving pieces and parts. And one loud voice of a group is better than one person alone. But that voice, the group voice, has to be well-educated on their rights and their responsibilities and go into an organized fashion.
KALEN LUCIANO: Open Communities is a non-profit in Evanston that provides legal aid and counseling regarding fair housing practices in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
MARY ELLEN BALL: We want to make sure we get people in their best position, so we encourage people to pay their rent. If they can’t pay their rent, then they need to call us right away. We can do a lot of mediation. It’s amazing what some good communication can do between two angry or scared parties. So we’re doing a lot of that. It’s a scrappy, small team that gets a lot done with little people.
KALEN LUCIANO: With all the information circling around right now, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused. But Ball wants residents to know that they are not necessarily safe from evictions during the pandemic.
MARY ELLEN BALL: The big misinformation is that evictions are halted. They are for non-payment of rent. They are not halted for other reasons that a landlord can try to make up. We’re hearing a lot of awful stories about lock changes. People being asked to self-evict. The landlord sends them a letter and just says you can’t pay your rent, just get out.
KALEN LUCIANO: And while Open Communities is working hard to slow the spread of misinformation, they’re also trying to secure housing in the midst of this economic downturn.
MARY ELLEN BALL: We’re trying hard to figure out and work with our funders actually. I’m trying to pitch a new program called Housing Stabilization Program, where I’m asking funders for cash to give out to renters and homeowners, to cover three months of rent, to cover three months of mortgage payments. If we can keep people a little bit ahead of the curve, we might be able to prevent some of the fallout.
KALEN LUCIANO: As Evanston residents face stress and fear related to housing uncertainty, Open Communities’ staff members and clients rely on help from mental health professionals.
MARY ELLEN BALL: So we were able to partner up with some clinical therapists that will offer our staff free mental health counseling as well as our clients. I have another clinical therapist because there’s trauma, deep, deep trauma that’s coming out of this on both sides. So my staff that are holding all of this trauma for people, trying to work with them through their hardest moments, and our clients are experiencing trauma every day. Will they become homeless, can they pay their bills? There’s a collective grief, and so I’m trying really hard to support them remotely and it seems to be helping.
KALEN LUCIANO: Looking forward, Ball is unsure about the stability of her organization as the pandemic continues, but that’s not what she’s most concerned about right now.
MARY ELLEN BALL: We’re not on that side of this crisis. Right now, we’re in the tsunami of need; the calls just keep coming in. We are trying hard to work against burnout. We’re putting in really, really long days on top of lots of us are homeschooling kids and taking care of elderly parents and trying to live a semi normal life. But I’ll be honest, I feel like this crisis of this pandemic is going to have two devastating waves. We are in the first wave right now with unemployment, with all this terror around our health.
And then there’s going to be the second wave, and I don’t know when that’s going to happen. And it’s when we start to try to get back to some kind of real life. That’s when people have to start figuring out how they can pay their rent and their mortgage as being unemployed or looking for work, because this economy is going to be a slow burn to get back to where it was. So the fallout from this is going to be long. And we’re going to need more staff to help us take these cases on. It’s a long burn.
KALEN LUCIANO: Thanks for listening. This episode was reported and produced by me, Kalen Luciano, along with Anika Mittu and Maya Reter. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are myself and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.
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