Board proposes fund for student housing crises

By Abbey Reighard / Staff Writer

The Student Government Board plans to expedite fundraising efforts surrounding students’ housing crises with a new program. 

The program comes as a result of recent off-campus crises — the Dawson Street house explosion in November 2013 and the Zulema Street house fire in March 2013  — that affected Pitt students.

Board member Graeme Meyer and Board President Mike Nites have been working on a pilot program called the Crisis Relief Fund. The fund — reserved for emergency housing crises — will consist of $2,000 from the Student Government Board’s budget.

The Board introduced the new program at its 8:45 p.m. public meeting Tuesday night in Nordy’s Place. About 25 people attended.

Meyer, who is also the Health and Wellness Committee liaison, said he and the rest of the Board have decided to wait until next week’s meeting to vote on the program until they have “hammered out all the details.” 

Students who are eligible for crisis relief funding may receive up to $250, depending on whether or not the student has insurance that covers the damage. 

“If you don’t have any sort of renter’s insurance, you would potentially receive slightly more funds than someone who does have insurance,” Meyer said. 

The amount of property students lost, Meyer said, would also determine the amount of money students receive. Students affected by crises would be required to turn in an itemized list of materials that the funds would be used toward.

Meyer and Nites are currently assembling a Crisis Relief Fund Committee, whose members would oversee the distribution of funds.

The committee will consist of five members. Jasmine Butler, the Health and Wellness Committee chairwoman, and Board member Abby Zurschmit, who is also SGB’s business manager, will be members of the committee.

Nites said he will likely pick the three remaining committee members from the Health and Wellness Committee or from other Student Government Board committees after the Board votes on the institution of the fund.

Students affected by housing crises can use the funds to purchase items for classes — such as books, notebooks and calculators — as well as essential living items.

The funds will not cover personal electronic devices or items already covered under a student’s existing insurance policy.

The Board initially considered having the committee distribute the funds through a rolling-basis application process, but to minimize timing of the process, is rethinking how to approach students facing housing crises. 

“We may potentially have the committee reach out to students who need funding so that it’s less of a burden for them to request funding and go through the application process,” Meyer said. 

Meyer said the program would be available for students living off-campus during the summer as well, as long as those students are conducting research or taking classes. Students enrolled as full-time students for the following fall semester would also be eligible for the fund.

The Crisis Relief Fund would not apply in the summer to students who had recently graduated.

The Student Activities Fund, to which each student pays $80 per semester, would absorb any remaining money from the Crisis Relief Fund, according to Meyer, and he hopes that it usually will.

“Ideally, we will never have to use [the Fund], but in instances where we do need it, it’ll be there,” Meyer said. 

Nites said the Board should officially vote on the pilot program by next week’s meeting. 

Kayla Keddal, a senior majoring in English writing and communications, lived in the house at 3376 Dawson St. that exploded Nov. 28, 2013, while she and the three other residents were home for Thanksgiving break. 

Keddal said she thinks the Crisis Relief Fund would have helped her at the time of the explosion because she didn’t have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. 

“I think a fund like this would definitely help get students through the initial transition phase, especially for those who may have to start commuting and need gas money or food on the go,” Keddal said. 

Keddal said she doesn’t think SGB should focus on replacing belongings with the program. She said the program should focus on “getting students back on their feet,” by providing funds for transportation and on-the-go food that students need immediately after the crisis occurs.

“I only say this because in a disaster where everything is lost, replacing belongings costs thousands of dollars, and realizing this creates a great deal of stress,” Keddal said.

The program does not currently cover things such as transportation or food, Meyer said, but the Board can make additions to the pilot program in the future.

“As of right now, the fund would just cover items essential for academic success,” Meyer said. “The fund is just meant to help people get back on their feet in the short term.”

Elizabeth Roth, a first-year graduate student, was one of 13 students who lived in an apartment building on Zulema Street that burned down in the fire last spring. 

Roth said she thinks the Crisis Relief Fund is a great idea, adding that she’s “glad that Pitt is being proactive about future housing crises.”

Roth said she thinks the program would have really helped her after she lost all of her belongings in the fire.

“Had a program like this been in place when I had my apartment fire last spring, it definitely would have expedited the process of replacing some of the necessities that I’d lost,” Roth said. 

Roth also said she thinks preventive safety measures and spreading awareness are important as well.

“Nobody ever expects to lose all their belongings, but obviously it happens,” Roth said. “I realize that might be beyond the scope of this program, but that’s one of those areas that people don’t usually think about until it’s too late.”  

In other action:

Allocations chairwoman Nasreen Harun and Nites announced that the Allocations Committee and the Board will work to reduce the amount of allocations distributed.

Nites said the Student Organization Resource Center provided an official total of funds — $891,608.60 — that the Board allocated this fiscal year.

The Board and the Allocations Committee think the total is too high, and said SGB will be more frugal with the amount of money allocated each week and will also ask student groups with leftover money from previous allocation requests to return that money to be redistributed by the Board and the committee. 

“This just means we will be reviewing requests more carefully,” Harun said. “We’ve always stressed shared responsibility with allocations, and now we’ll be doing that even more.”

Board member Abby Zurschmit has been gathering information about Safe Rider smartphone apps at other schools to compare the data with Pitt’s Safe Rider system.

Board member Brandon Benjamin met with Christine Patterson, a liaison to the readership program for The New York Times, to plan for the upcoming New York Times speaker who will come to campus March 31. Benjamin also met with Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey about his initiative to make course descriptions available on the course registration site during class registration, rather than on different sites. 

Board member Mona Kazour attended a “green” round table meeting, where she discussed green initiatives with environmental groups.

Meyer met with Marian Vanek, director of Student Health, to discuss a tobacco-use survey that Meyer plans to conduct. Meyer hopes to reduce tobacco usage with his initiative that aims to ban smoking within 15 feet of a campus building.


The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers requested $592 to attend a conference in Boston. The Board approved the request in full in line with the Allocations recommendation.

Men’s Ultimate Frisbee requested $2,763.96 for a competition in Tampa, Fla. The Board approved $2351.28 and denied $412.68, a portion of the costs.

Phi Beta Lambda requested $887.20 to attend a conference in Gettysburg, Pa. The Board approved $857.20 and denied $30, and portion of the costs in line with the Allocations recommendation.

Pitt Women’s Water Polo requested $2,167.76 to compete in a tournament at James Madison University. The Board approved the request in full in line with the Allocations recommendation. 

Pitt Men’s Volleyball Club requested $13,590 to compete in a tournament in Reno, Nev. and a tournament in Orlando, Fla. The Board approved $6,270 and denied $7,320, a portion of the costs. 

The Student Emergency Medical Services Initiative requested $1,342 to attend a conference in Boston. The Board approved the request in full in line with the Allocations recommendation. 

The U.S. Institute of Theatre Technology requested $1,401.25 to attend a conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The Board approved the request in full in line with the Allocations recommendation. 

American Nuclear Society requested $780 to attend a conference at Penn State. The Board approved the request in full in line with the Allocations recommendation.

The Board has allocated $96,942.20 so far this year.