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Monday, April 22, 2024

UF coalition bands together to save graduate housing complexes

Tensions rise over potential closure of Maguire, University Village

Maguire Village is a student housing facility located off of Radio Road.
Maguire Village is a student housing facility located off of Radio Road.

Derek LaMontagne has been trying for more than a year to stop his housing complex from shutting down. 

LaMontagne lives in Maguire Village, one of two graduate housing complexes UF has scheduled to close in Summer 2023. The other is University Village South. Now, with closure less than half a year away, he’s forming a coalition with the help of UF political science senior Gabrielle Adekunle to make one last push to get UF’s ear and stop it from happening. 

LaMontagne has lived at Maguire Village for five years now. Based on his own experience there, he doesn’t see why the village needs to be closed, he said.

“It’s like paradise,” LaMontagne said. “And they’re tearing it down without good justification.” 

There are now about 500 available on-campus student housing units for around 4,000 graduate students, GAU Co-President Bryn Taylor said. UF will remove 348 units in total.

But the university asserts the demolition is necessary due to concerns about living conditions. 

Take Action, a progressive student group that Adekunle heads, is part of the coalition. Other groups include Graduate Assistants United, Graduate Student Council, the Black Graduate Student Association, the Alachua County Labor Coalition, the Community Justice Project and the Sierra Club. The coalition is still growing, she said.

“I think this is a vital time to make some change happen with this,” Adekunle said.

The coalition’s efforts come on the tail end of more than a year’s work from various graduate organizations that has seen little traction. 

The housing plan was announced in Fall 2019. Two years later, when LaMontagne realized the plans were going to go into effect soon, he organized protests — including one Oct. 22, 2021, where Calvin Mosley, director of residence life and education, called the police on protestors handing out leaflets at a Maguire Village Halloween event, LaMontagne said. 

LaMontagne also wrote up a 2021 petition outlining demands to reverse the decision to close the villages. As of Sunday, it has 1,034 signatures. 

But UF Housing often doesn’t respond to his calls and emails, LaMontagne said. He attended a Campus Student Housing Committee meeting Oct. 28 to try and address his concerns about closing Maguire Village and UVS. 

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He was told the housing closure was necessary for UF to maintain a good position in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, he said. UF currently is the No. 5 public university.

Now, the new coalition is going to present an updated list of demands, Adekunle said. It’ll also call for a criminal investigation of UF Housing and Residence Life for possibly endangering student families and mishandling Maguire Village and UVS. 

Part of the demands include the resignation of Tina Horvath, senior director of housing and residence life, Chad Doering, facilities management director, and Mosley.

“They have been contributing to this problem,” she said. 

The decision to shut down the two villages comes from a comprehensive building assessment that determined they were beyond “economical renovation,” meaning it would cost too much to fix problems in the buildings, UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldan said. The villages could no longer provide quality of life up to par, she added. 

The buildings face issues with mold, moisture penetration and plumbing issues, according to the original 2019 UF Housing Master Plan. Combined, both buildings would require more than $35 million in renovations within the next five years. 

Renovations aren’t recommended, according to the plan, and implementing the plan would involve having the two villages slated for demolition before Fall 2023. The estimated demolition costs are about $6 million. 

However, there are currently no written plans to demolish the villages in the current document, Roldan said. It’s unclear what UF will replace the villages with, according to the UF Housing and Residence Life website. 

The Gainesville City Commission unanimously voted to recommend the housing plan Jan. 6. But it didn’t happen without pushback — the meeting was postponed multiple times as the commission requested more information about affordable graduate housing from UF director of planning Linda Dixon. 

Eventually, the commission decided to vote yes.  

Both Adekunle and LaMontagne take issue with the idea that the villages are beyond fixing. LaMontagne, as a resident, has had no major issues with his living conditions when it comes to plumbing or mold, he said. 

The current conditions at the villages aren’t unsafe, according to the website. But if that’s the case, Adekunle said, then it doesn’t make sense to get rid of them entirely. 

“If they’re not up to date, then why do we have people living in them right now?” she said. 

The argument of renovation costs being too high has even come up in a meeting with UF President Kent Fuchs, LaMontagne said. But recent news of the university purchasing apartment complexes Varsity House and The Continuum tells LaMontagne otherwise. 

When asked about the graduate housing issue, Fuchs said he believes the most important issue is keeping up with the other universities UF is ranked against. 

"We really have to be comparable to our best peers and our best competition," Fuchs said. 

The apartments will be paid for with $185.5 million in bonds, more than five times the amount the housing plan estimated for village renovations, as reported in the Gainesville Sun. 

The Gainesville Sun estimated new rental rates at Varsity House will be $975 a month, more than $400 greater than rates at the villages, which are capped at $599. 

This kind of solution isn’t what LaMontagne was looking for. 

“It seems like the wrong way to spend the money,” LaMontagne said. “It’s just not respectful of what we already have.”

Taylor said she agrees. 

The union and UF recently negotiated a $1,420 increase to the minimum stipend for graduate assistants — the money they receive each year for their work — raising it to $22,753 annually. However, the package they secured Aug. 18 ended up $15,580 less than GAU’s original offer.

If UF is planning on housing graduate assistants in apartments that have high-rent costs, Taylor said, it should raise the stipend by those costs as well. The low stipend is why there’s such a demand for low-rent graduate housing in the first place, she said. 

GAU plans to use the housing issue to raise the minimum stipend when negotiations reopen in October, Taylor said. 

“It will definitely be in the arsenal,” she said. “If they are dead set on having this being their housing plan, then it’s pretty much their only option.”

Contact Siena at Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan.

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Siena Duncan

Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat. 

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