Next spring, just after finals conclude and dissertations are defended, many University of New Mexico students with families will be looking for another place to live.
The closure of the Student Family Housing complex was confirmed in a June 29 email sent to residents by Wayne Sullivan, the director of Residence Life and Student Housing.
"The University made the difficult decision to close the Student Family Housing (SFH) complex on May 31, 2021," Sullivan wrote. "For nearly 50 years, we have had the pleasure to provide affordable housing to our outstanding students and have truly enjoyed developing relationships with all of our residents."
With the decision to "decommission" the Student Family Housing complex in just under 11 months, the University will eliminate the only student housing that catered specifically to students with families, including a large percentage of international and graduate students.
Touted by the University as a "unique academic community dedicated to UNM undergraduates and graduate students with family, spouses or domestic partners," the facility near south campus houses 200 apartments on a 12-acre plot of land and is about a 20-minute walk from main campus.
The contracts to run and operate Student Family Housing are set to expire in May 2021, which was communicated to residents in January of this year. Residence Life and Student Housing were "exploring options for the future of SFH given the substantial facility challenges we face" at that time, according to Sullivan's email.
Those challenges, which included "extensive repairs or complete replacement" of infrastructure and housing units, were deemed insurmountable by the administration.
"With costs approaching $45 million, the resulting monthly payments for families would be prohibitively expensive," Sullivan wrote in the email. "With the current economic environment, there are no avenues available to use other resources to reduce the expense for the residents."
Despite a laundry list of complaints about the apartments' lack of infrastructure investment and maintenance compared to other student residences, many SFH tenants praised the housing complex's welcoming environment for families and cited the community's unique qualities as being vital to completing their studies while raising a family.
Matthew J. Irwin, who finished the last three years of his PhD research as a resident of SFH and is set to graduate in July, characterized the family housing community as "valuable, even essential" for hundreds of UNM students.
"Many or most of (the residents) are international students and students of color," Irwin told the Daily Lobo. "UNM's stated reason for dropping SFH is it will cost nearly $50 million to repair. At the same time, a former employee once told me (Residence Life and Student Housing) has consistently skimped on upkeep and maintenance at SFH over the years despite significant revenue."
It's unclear where international students, who make up a substantial part of the SFH community, will live after the facility's closure in light of restrictions on travel amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The unique housing needs of international students in the country on visas also raised concerns about Title IX violations in providing equitable services to all students regardless of visa status, according to a resident who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisals from the University.
More than one million international students have been left stranded in the United States due to border closures and financial barriers exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the New York Times.
The resident also said many international students will be unable to obtain alternative housing due to their income being "non-verifiable" in line with visa restrictions. The Daily Lobo was unable to verify that claim by the time of publication.
Located on Buena Vista Drive adjacent to CNM and just northeast of Isotopes Park, SFH has been plagued by a cascade of issues in recent years.
A letter sent by the SFH residents association to President Garnett Stokes and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Teresa Constantinidis in mid-May detailed a myriad of safety concerns and cited an increase in crime since the COVID-19 quarantine began. The list of grievances included an active shooting outside the complex that went uninvestigated by UNMPD, the harassment and stalking of female residents and stolen bicycles.
In addition, the chain link fences on the north and south sides of the property were described to have been cut and breached — sometimes numerous times a week — with regularity, according to multiple residents.
In response, Constantinidis said UNMPD was "aware of some of the challenges facing SFH" and forwarded outgoing police chief Kevin McCabe's contact information, encouraging a dialogue with the University's police department to try and resolve the issues.
The residents association's petition for cameras and other security infrastructure was denied, with Constantinidis citing "extreme budget cuts" and saying investment in a facility that faced imminent closure would be "ill-advised."
Asbestos is also present in the aging facilities.
In 2000, UNM Environmental Affairs found that the toxic building material — which causes serious health problems in humans and is the precursor to diagnoses of mesothelioma and other illnesses — was found in floor tiles, ceiling material and between drywall sheets. Asbestos is still present in the housing complex today, according to tenants.
"Every effort should be made by the resident to not penetrate or expose these areas," a Residence Life and Student Housing policy guide advised SFH residents.
Additionally, the Daily Lobo reported in November 2019 that UNM would terminate the University-supplied internet in July of this year, leaving residents to purchase their own service.
Residents' bursars accounts were credited $30 monthly to defray the costs of making the switch, which some said was inadequate to cover the actual cost of service.
Student Family Housing will no longer be accepting new applications as the complex winds down operations. Residence Life and Student Housing will continue to waive contract release fees for residents who choose to move out before May 2021, a practice that administrators started in January.
As of July 1, SFH's page on the Residence Life and Student Housing website gave no indication that the facility would be shuttered come next May.
The path forward for current residents remains unsettled, as the announcement contained few details of how the University would proceed in assisting residents with securing new housing over the next 11 months outside of "sharing information."
Residents of SFH were instructed to ask questions of senior Residence Life and Student Housing staff — including Sullivan — at the complex's community center on July 1 from 1-2 p.m. SFH administrative staff member Becki Tankson declined to comment and directed the Daily Lobo's request for comment to Sullivan.
A voicemail left for Sullivan was routed to Institutional Support Services communication and outreach specialist Sarah Scott, who requested more time to provide comment to the Daily Lobo as of the publication of this article.
On the other hand, residents of SFH both past and present — including many elected officials — were unreserved in voicing their consternation.
And the reactions were, on balance, blisteringly critical of the administration's decision.
Anne Turner, a PhD candidate and communication chair of the complex's resident association who lives at SFH with a family of four, decried what she described as the administration's lackluster management of the community.
"They have done nothing to ensure the safety of residents here or to provide quality housing. (The) administration has had ample opportunity to contract housing for students here, but they would just rather close down than help them out," Turner wrote on Facebook. "Our international communities will suffer the most — we have many families from China, India, Thailand, etc. who have formed support systems."
"It is deplorable that the University couldn't think of a single solution," Turner added.
Joy Garratt, a Democratic state representative who holds a master's degree in educational leadership from UNM, voiced similar concerns.
"This is deeply disappointing," Garratt wrote on Facebook. "My family lived there when we returned to Albuquerque from overseas and started graduate school. It was affordable, safe and a wonderful multicultural community to raise children in."
Meanwhile, Democratic nominee for the Bernalillo County Commission District 3 seat Adriann Barboa characterized the impending closure as a "disgrace" on social media.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver also praised the facility as an essential resource for UNM students raising a family while attending school, touting its benefits for the family of her friend and current State Auditor Brian Colón during his tenure at UNM's School of Law.
The financial benefits, along with some more ancillary amenities provided at SFH, made the facility appealing for many UNM students — not least of which was the affordability and safety furnished by the complex.
"SFH did make it a lot easier to be a graduate student with kids," Irwin said. "Benefits included affordability, proximity to campus, all-inclusive rent (including internet and laundry), security, open field and playground, community events, a community center, a rent cycle based on the academic calendar and a community of people who understand the additional difficulty of studying with children."
Irwin added that his summative financial expense at SFH, including all utilities, was cheaper than the rent alone at his previous residence.
Irwin also juxtaposed the depth of infrastructure investments on and near campus — including the overhaul of Johnson Gym and construction of the new physics and astronomy building — with the lack of investment in family housing provided by the University.
The 160,000-square-foot, six-story Lobo Rainforest Building — which opened in August 2017 as the latest addition to UNM's student housing portfolio — cost $35 million to build and doesn't cater to students with families.
While SFH has controlled access to the gated community, the Rainforest has RFID-enabled student ID cards to gain access to the building and elevators, a lobby with a front desk clerk and substantially more and brighter perimeter and parking lot lighting.
Noah Solomon, a 35-year-old SFH resident and broadcast media and journalism major, moved from a Westside apartment last September and said the closure of the complex could be devastating to the international community that resides there.
According to Solomon, the resources that have been offered by the University thus far are inadequate to address potential housing insecurity when SFH closes its doors for good.
"We have a newsletter that goes out every week, and (Residence Life and Student Housing) is putting information about housing assistance from the Albuquerque Housing Authority," Solomon told the Daily Lobo. "Because a lot of these families are non-citizens, and with the borders closed, they actually don't qualify (for subsidized housing), which means they may actually be homeless if they can't go back to their countries."
This article has been updated to include commentary from SFH residents and significantly more detail on the impending closure of the Student Family Housing complex.
Andrew Gunn is a senior reporter and the copy editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites