Student-Run Rent Relief Initiative at Florida State University
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Disclaimer: Torchlight Campus Policy Center is a non-partisan organization and does not support/oppose a political party or a policy agenda. The Torchlight Center is not a foreign policy, human rights, history, or rhetoric think tank. None of the points or information discussed here by Torchlight are an endorsement, agreement, or promotion.
In this policy analysis product, the Torchlight Campus Policy Center aims to explore the feasibility, limitations and implications of a student-run rent relief initiative at Florida State University. Incorporated into this work are informational interviews with both the FSU SGA student senators and the 2020-2021 student body president of the UF Student Government (UF SG) as well as research on relevant policies, on-campus facilities and stakeholders in the policymaking process. This analysis consists of three parts:
Background: Provides background information on the UF Student Government’s rent relief program.
Program Development & Implementation: Describes plausible course of action to implement a student-run rent relief initiative at Florida State University; incorporates contemporary political dynamics following the Spring 2021 SGA Elections.
Normative Analysis: Briefly offers suggested improvements and notes criticisms for a rent relief policy.
Introduction The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closures of the Florida State University (FSU) campus and local businesses disrupted the academic and financial lives of students. Many students confronted the economic repercussions of the pandemic with an insecure source of income. This impacted students’ ability to pay their off-campus housing costs, especially for renters in leases without an early termination clause. By April 2020, students at the University of Florida (UF) organized rent strikes, despite the possible financial repercussions (Nelson, 2020). Forgoing rent payments can adversely affect credit scores, job prospects and future rental options. During the most recent FSU Student Government Association (SGA) elections, the debate concerning rent relief became salient. Student candidates for the political party Progress FSU aimed to produce a student-run rent relief initiative reminiscent of the Student Government Rent Relief Fund established by the University of Florida’s student government.
To ensure students “do not breach their lease agreements,” Student Senators at the University of Florida appropriated and authorized $500,000 from excess activity and service (A&S) fees toward the Off-Campus Rent Relief Fund (Pope & Pearson, 2020; Nelson, 2020; McGlone, 2020). Pursuant to Florida Statutes §1009.24 (2020), A&S fees are collected by public universities and maintained in a separate fund to the “benefit of the student body general.” Unused funds are saved in a carryover account. The Policy Research Team at Torchlight interviewed former UF Student Body President Trevor Pope, a law student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, to gain insight into the program’s intricacies. According to Student Body President Pope, the $500,000 sum was selected after several meetings and surveys in coordination with the university’s Director of Off-Campus Life. Enacted in mid-May 2020, the UF Student Government’s bill offered up to $500 for off-campus housing expenses to students who can prove financial harm induced by the pandemic. The program would help up to 1,000 students (Pope & Pearson, 2020). The language in the Student Senate’s bill enabled flexibility for the Executive Branch to design an application process. Student leaders also consulted the UF Office of the Vice President and General Counsel in the design of this policy.
The bill was approved by both the Student Senate and Student Body President in one week; however, the actual implementation process proved to be more challenging task. Student Body President Pope emphasized the anonymity and objectivity of their rent relief program. To mitigate bias in the application selection process, the UF Vice President of Student Affairs appointed a non-student staff committee to review applications utilizing a double-blind procedure. According to the Encyclopedia of Research Design, a double-blind procedure is an experiment in which both the participants and the experimenters do not know “the assignment of participants to experimental groups” (Salkind, 2012, p. 387). In the case of UF’s policy, the selection committee did not know any personal information of the applicants, and the applicants did not know the members of the committee. Available on the Student Government's website, the rent relief application required a brief personal statement and financial documents, such as a lease agreement, confirmation of termination from an employer, or an application for unemployment benefits (UF SG, 2020). Personal information like name, sex, and racial/ethnic identifiers were excluded. Inundated with approximately 2,000 applications, administrators sorted and identified 1,000 students to receive up to $500. Since the Student Government cannot transfer funds directly to student accounts, the UF Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships (SFA) distributed the funds to individuals selected by the committee. The interagency process produced some hurdles. Financial aid is subject to several state and federal statutes, see §1009.40-1009.96, Fla. Stat. (2020). Recipients of rent relief could not receive financial support unless they registered for classes. This prohibited graduating students who were still subject to an off-campus lease from receiving aid, and it delayed financial support for students not enrolled in summer courses. Student Body President Pope described how several parents called the Student Government about their concerns. This prompted both the UF SG to establish a separate email account for questions, and Student Legal Services to create a frequently asked questions page (Student Legal Services, 2020).
The unprecedented aspect of a student-run rent relief program proved feasible yet difficult for the University of Florida. In addition to Student Government, the effort required collaboration among a myriad of stakeholders from legal services to marketing and social media teams. Students successfully obtained the buy-in of university administrators, a crucial aspect of campus-level policymaking and program implementation. Therefore, UF’s experience with the program could provide a framework for FSU Student Senators seeking to implement a similar initiative in Tallahassee.
In September 2020, Student Senator Griffin Leckie, a third-year undergraduate and former Acting Senate President Pro Tempore, filed Senate Bill 101: The Emergency SGA Rent Relief Fund Act of 2020 with bipartisan support from student political parties. (1) Minutes for this meeting can be found here. As chair of the Student Senate Judiciary Committee, Student Senator Leckie struggled to communicate with university administration. Leckie contacted the Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Brandon Bowden, but did not receive a response. The Student Senator sent the Office of the General Counsel a three-page memo containing the bill’s language, information about the UF Rent Relief Fund, and an argument for the policy’s legality, but the General Counsel did not respond.
Program Implementation at Florida State University
During the Spring 2021 semester, Progress FSU candidates highlighted the inclusion of a rent relief program on their platform (Progress FSU, 2021). Progress FSU was the only political party during the Spring 2021 SGA elections to officially support this initiative in their campaign platform. The Policy Research Team at Torchlight interviewed then-Vice President candidate Griffin Leckie and then-Chair of Progress FSU Brendan Gerdts to obtain insight on the policy proposal and understand the potential fiscal sustainability of the measure.
Leckie and Gerdts explained that Progress FSU aimed to emulate UF’s rent relief initiative. Under their plan, Student Senators would propose a bill for an affiliated project funded with excess A&S fees to fund rent relief. (2) When asking about the implementation plan, Gerdts and Leckie stated if the Student Senate lacked the funds for rent relief, the legislative body would not transfer funds appropriated to other campus organizations, rather engage in grassroots fundraising. Progress FSU contended the Student Senate maintained approximately one million dollars in sweepings from the 2019-2020 school year—a majority in-person academic year. The sweepings account contains all unallocated or unspent funds from the past Student Government fiscal year and is allocated annually to Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) who apply. The current application for the sweepings process can be found here and closed September 17, 2021, at noon. Since the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of in-person events on campus, it is reasonable to expect the sweepings for the 2020-2021 school year increased. Indeed, the 73rd Student Senate's Bill 12 contains a sum of approximately $1.5 million in sweepings—nearly one million dollars more than the previous year according to the 72nd Student Senate’s Bill 5 (FSU SGA, 2021; FSU SGA, 2020). Indeed, the 73rd Student Senate's Bill 12 contains a sum of approximately $1.5 million in sweepings— nearly one million dollars more than the previous year according to the 72nd Student Senate’s Bill 5 (FSU SGA, 2021; FSU SGA, 2020).
Progress FSU aims to offer an application like the UF Rent Relief Fund that requires students to demonstrate their financial need with a lease agreement and documentation of income loss. The sum of rent relief would be identified on a case-by-case basis; however, Progress FSU did not identify a proposed maximum limit on funds. Instead, this number would be enumerated during the policymaking process. The party representatives stated they are interested in working with FSU's Office of the General Counsel to identify appropriate documents. Unlike UF’s Student Government, the FSU SGA does not possess an easily identifiable professional office for student legal services; therefore, students may not have as straightforward access to advice about their lease agreements or assembling financial documents. Under Progress FSU’s proposal, the applications would undergo a double-blind procedure, conducted by an independent review committee, using only a student’s EMPLID as identifying information to insure anonymity. “An EMPLID is a unique, nine-digit number issued to all students, faculty, staff and guests of Florida State University” (myFSU Service Center, 2020). Progress FSU expressed their interest in cooperating with the Faculty Senate, a university-wide legislative body, and the Vice President of Student Affairs. In Progress FSU’s proposal, the latter would appoint four members to the review committee. Other committee members would include the Student Body Treasurer and two members confirmed by the Student Senate. This differs from the UF application review process that formed an ad-hoc committee of non-students. After receiving approval, Progress FSU stated students would receive funds from Student Business Services. But it is plausible SGA Accounting will have a role in this process as well as other student affairs personnel. Recommendations to improve the policy’s feasibility are identified in the concluding section. Moreover, it is salient to note the contemporary political dynamics following Progress FSU’s defeat in the Spring 2021 SGA Elections for both the Executive Branch and Student Senate control. According to the SGA Supervisor of Elections (2021), the Movement won 38 of the 72 filled Student Senate seats, which grants the party a majority in the legislature. A rent relief initiative remains absent from the Movement party’s platform, so it is unknown if the Movement supports or opposes the policy (The Movement, 2021). However, the original bill had bipartisan support (FSU SGA, 2020). Nevertheless, if a bill did receive support from most Student Senators and subsequently pass, it is unknown whether SGA can obtain the buy-in of university administration or the student body president who must sign the legislation. Student Senate bills must also be signed by Dr. Amy Hecht, the Vice President of Student Affairs. Previously, the Office of the General Counsel did not respond to then-Student Senator Leckie’s request for a meeting to discuss the legality of a rent relief bill. Strong executive support is necessary to create large-scale change because the Executive Cabinet works closely with administration. Furthermore, since the start of the Fall 2021 semester, the Movement Party has deleted all the posts from their Instagram account and has yet to show any indication of running in the upcoming Fall Election. Many Student Government leaders formally affiliated with the party are now openly affiliated with a new political party, Forward FSU. Torchlight has produced the Fall 2021 Student Government Election Guide which includes the parties’ platforms.
If student senators seek a rent relief program without effective communication with university administration, the Policy Research Team believes students may organize a digital media campaign to increase student awareness and pressure administrators. Social media campaigns have played an influential role in shaping policy. FSU students organized for the removal of former Senate President Jack Denton during the Summer 2020 semester, the removal of statues depicting controversial figures, and renaming of controversially named buildings on campus (Chapter, 2020). Progress FSU party representatives indicated this is a plausible avenue. Furthermore, if students are successful in developing a rent relief program, it is critical to identify the successes and faults of previous attempts.
A student-run rent relief program is feasible; however, the Student Government Association must identify the relevant stakeholders to make the policy both efficient and effective. Firstly, the SGA must assess if a rent relief program is practical in the Summer 2021 and Fall 2021 semesters, because many students have graduated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state laws that might make it incredibly difficult to provide that financial relief. We recommend an impact evaluation to determine if rent relief would be cost effective. (3) Subsequently, the Executive Branch and Student Senate must obtain the support of the Vice President of Student Affairs and the Office of the General Counsel to make the process more feasible. Like the UF Student Government, the FSU Student Executive Branch should appoint non-students to the Review Committee to identify qualified applicants to mitigate both bias and politicization in the selection process. SGA should also perform an information campaign to notify students about rent relief to hopefully increase the number of applicants. The Policy Research Team recommends a digital media campaign and an official university website describing the application process and how to receive funds. To reach individuals without access to social media, the Office of Financial Aid should send messages to students’ FSU email addresses. During Torchlight’s interview with UF Student Body President Pope, it became clear that effective rent relief requires dedicated staff and extensive customer service. At the University of Florida, appointed selection committee members worked on an ad-hoc basis, which resulted in miscommunication between parents, students, and the student government. The disbursement issues mentioned in the background section of this work accentuate the extensive difficulties in delivering funds to students. The Executive Branch must appoint volunteers to facilitate daily email communications between the Student Government, parents, and students. Additionally, the program should offer a survey to obtain the insight of recipients. Surveys provide the opportunity for students to anonymously share their concerns and experiences with the Student Government Association and university administration.
To put it succinctly, a rent relief program at Florida State University requires the input and coordination of several stakeholders in both the Student Government Association and university administration to be successful. A previous attempt at rent relief has yielded mixed results.
At the time, the Florida State University Student Government Association consisted of primarily two political parties: the Movement and Progress FSU. These parties are specific to the university and do not claim to be associated with national parties like the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee.
An affiliated project is an SGA-funded venture that provides benefits to the Florida State community; examples include the public radio station WVFS Tallahassee 89.7 and the S.A.F.E. Connection.
Impact evaluations are assessments that determine the influence or effects, if any, of a program or policy (Rogers, 2014, p. 1). The process requires the collaboration of multiple stakeholders, including governing agencies, partner organizations, and affected populations; the results inform policymakers’ decisions “about whether to continue, discontinue, replicate, or scale up” the policy initiative (Rogers, 2014, pp. 1-2). Impact evaluations are especially important in pilot programs such as student-run rent relief initiatives.
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