On Tuesday, April 15, the Undergraduate Student Government rejected a resolution that would endorse the Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Act, a current bill in the U.S. Congress. The eight senators who voted against the endorsement expressed their reasons for doing so in both a news article and a letter to the editor, both published in the Daily Trojan. In both cases, the arguments advanced represent a total lack of awareness of the bill’s content and a dangerous assumption that USG should only be concerned with matters in the USC bubble.
CHIA would fix a loophole in the tax code that currently prevents nonprofit student entities from using charitable donations to improve both the affordability and safety of college housing. The reasoning behind the bill is simple: If colleges can use their tax-deductible donations to improve housing, then nonprofit operators should be able to do the same.
This week, more than 100 students from universities across the United States traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby the bill. Most representatives came with the support of their undergraduate student governments. USC’s students did not.
“The main reason I didn’t support it is that the angle with which it was presented contrasts with the bill itself,” Residential Senator Aziz Akbari told the Daily Trojan in an interview following the rejection. “There’s nothing in the actual bill talking about safety.”
If Akbari had read the bill or any of the publicly available summaries of the bill, he would have found that the reason the word “safety” does not appear in the bill is because its intention is much broader. Akbari seemed to agree.
“Safety is a big issue for us, and we support safety, but the worry is that the money from tax breaks would go towards other things,” he said in an interview with the Daily Trojan.
As it turns out, those “other things” are some of the most beneficial parts of the bill. Several hundred thousand students live in nonprofit housing, and at most public schools, room and board costs are greater than the cost of tuition, according to a study by the College Board. If CHIA passes, more nonprofit housing could be built and existing nonprofit housing would be improved and maintained, three measures that have nothing to do with safety but everything to do with making attending college more affordable.
In the letter to the editor published April 21, the senators who rejected the bill further explained their decision. Their intention was to rebut accusations of anti-Greek bias levied against them by the bill’s supporters.
“One of the driving reasons behind this bill is the current disparity in [the] tax-exempt status of universities and of National Greek Organizations. Multiple senators voiced their concern that if this disparity disappeared, donations to Greek organizations would increase at the expense of donations to the University that beneﬁt the entire student body,” the senators wrote.
Not a shred of research supports this claim. Currently, national organizations that want to donate to nonprofit housing providers choose not to because the donations are taxable, and the argument that existing donors would stop donating to other things is simply made up. Even worse, it reflects a dangerous sense of entitlement — even if one donor decided it was important to donate to fire sprinkler upgrades or fire escape renovations, it’s difficult to quantify the impact this would have on USC’s 3.5 billion dollar endowment.
It’s also a double standard — last week, the Senate passed a bill that supports gender-neutral housing, a great step for diversity on our campus but one that could unquestionably lead to a decrease in donations based on religious or ethical reasons. If that didn’t matter in the case of supporting gender-neutral housing, it shouldn’t matter in the case of supporting affordable and safe housing.
The conflation between CHIA and exclusive support for the Greek system is shocking and ignores that CHIA would be available to nonprofits other than the Greek system. Baylor University, which doesn’t even have Greek housing, sent students to support the bill with the backing of its administration, according to the school’s paper.
“The bill has been in Congress for two years and has been subject to numerous changes. If the Senate is to support anything, we wish to be sure of its ﬁnal content rather than give a carte blanche endorsement,” the senators continued.
According to GovTrack, a publicly available website that tracks Congressional activity, however, the bill was introduced on April 9, 2013 and hasn’t been amended a single time.
Research prior to the vote was lacking, to say the least. The senators of the Undergraduate Student Government have three months to catch up — because this is a bill that should receive a revote and unanimous support in the fall.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring economics and political science.