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UT Austin students form union to help fellow renters in the state's most expensive city

Four people stand outside to speak to a group of students about a tenants' union.
Audrey McGlinchy
KUT News
UT Austin students Isabel Webb Carey, Kayla Quilantang, Grant Gilker and Namratha Thrikutam are organizing what they say is the university's first student tenants' union.

Namratha Thrikutam spent August and September crashing at a friend's apartment.

The third-year architecture student at UT Austin should have had her own place. At least on paper. Thrikutam had signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment in a brand-new building in West Campus, but construction was running behind schedule.

So, Thrikutam pulled an air mattress into her friend's bedroom and slept on it until her apartment was ready.

“It puts you in a weird situation where your friends become your landlords,” she said. “No one should ever have to do that.”

Thirkutam hopes no one else ever will. She and other students recently formed a tenants' union to help fellow university students, many of whom have never lived on their own before, navigate renting in the state's most expensive city.

While there is some university housing available for UT Austin students, there's no guarantee. Many students end up living in privately owned apartments. Wherever they end up, students face issues common to many tenants in the city, such as escalating rent prices and delayed repairs.

But as the university grows, students also deal with increased competition for living space near campus. Many sign leases with private landlords nine months in advance. They pay rents typically higher than the city average. Couple that with the fact that many students arriving on campus are renting apartments for the first time, and housing for students becomes an industry ripe for exploitation.

“We’re students. We haven’t signed a lease before,” said Isabel Webb Carey, a senior and one of the founders of the union. Last year, Webb Carey spent a month renting an apartment off AirBnB because an apartment she had agreed to rent was not ready for move-in. “When you're in classes and you don’t know where you’re going to go home to that day, it is just terrifying.”

Post-It notes stuck on a big piece of paper on a table detail various housing issues students have faced.
Audrey McGlinchy
KUT News
Using Post-it notes, students detail the housing issues they've faced.

At an event Sunday afternoon, roughly two dozen students showed up in the yard of a university co-op to hear about the new tenants' union. Some of them grabbed pink, blue or orange Post-it notes. They wrote down housing issues they've dealt with and pasted them to a growing list on a fold-up table: broken elevator, flooding, black mold, rats.

The union was formed amidst a perceived rise in renter advocacy during the pandemic. Tenants across the country began organizing in protest of rising rents. In 2022, more renters in the U.S. were considered "cost-burdened," meaning they were shelling out a third or more of their income on housing costs. (That represents nearly half of renters in the Austin area.)

"Tenant class consciousness has really gone up. Once that sort of consciousness gets raised in people — they understand their exploitation as tenants and the power they hold when they organize — it's really hard to go back. So it starts building,” Riley Metcalfe, an educator with the housing policy group Texas Housers, said. “I think students are just a reflection of that.”

According to Metcalfe, student tenant unions are hard to find. Often students work with existing unions representing renters throughout a city or region. He said one challenge to keeping a student tenants’ union going is the nature of being a student: eventually, you graduate. Maybe you leave the city where you were enrolled.

"It's really hard to organize college students. By definition, most are transient,” Metcalfe said.

Webb Carey is well aware of the challenges the tenants’ union faces. She will graduate this spring and is not sure she’ll stay in Austin. She said she decided to form the union in the hope that it would outlast her time as a student.

"We have so many people excited and interested and engaged … in a way that we haven't seen before and I wanted to keep this going,” she said.

Thrikutam, who slept on an air mattress for two months, said she feels the university has long been “out of touch” with students’ housing concerns. (KUT reached out to university administration for comment on the union, but did not hear back before publication.) In 2019, UT students went in front of the Austin City Council to fight against the demolition of off-campus housing, much of it affordable to lower-income students. Some wondered why representatives from the university’s administration were not present at the meeting.

Since then, UT has announced several programs intended to help students afford housing, including gifting low-income students up to $1,800 a year to subsidize housing costs. The university is also moving ahead with plans to build a new dorm, which would add 800 beds to campus.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Namratha Thrikutam was a fourth-year architecture student. She's in her third year.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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