Thousands of UC students struggle to find housing

September 13, 2021

UC Santa Barbara

Nazrawi Allen is about to begin his fourth year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but he — like thousands of other students in the UC system — doesn’t yet have a place to live.

He is among hundreds of UC Santa Barbara students on the campus dorm waiting list, and as for living off campus, “that option is pretty much out the window,” says Allen. He’s looked for a place in Isla Vista, the neighborhood where the campus is located, but available off-campus housing is virtually nonexistent. The few apartments that are accepting applicants are far out of Allen’s price range.

He says he may be forced to live in his car while he attends college.

The pandemic and the desire to maintain physical distancing has prompted some landlords and renters in Isla Vista to limit the density in shared houses and apartments. The result is fewer rooms available for students, and campus dorms can’t always handle the extra demand.

The housing crunch has left Allen among the many students at UC Santa Barbara still searching for permanent housing with 10 days before fall classes begin. As of earlier this month, more than 900 students were on the on-campus housing waiting list.

While the housing shortage may not be universal throughout the UC system, it has affected thousands of students at UC Merced, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz, in addition to Santa Barbara.

Thousands of students at UC San Diego have struggled to find housing, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, which reported that the shortage at that campus was triggered at least in part by on-campus housing not being at full capacity. UC San Diego is limiting dorm room occupancy to two students. In the past, some rooms have housed three students.

At UC Santa Cruz, rental prices are up and availability is low, according to Lookout Santa Cruz, an online publication. A spokesman for the Santa Cruz campus told the website that “several hundred” students are on a waiting list for on-campus housing.

UC Merced, one of two campuses on the semester schedule, was forced to delay the start of in-person classes because about 1,000 students couldn’t find housing.

UC Berkeley has long struggled with housing issues. The campus, which started classes more than two weeks ago, did not provide figures for how many students are still seeking housing. But before classes began, as many as 5,000 students who had applied for housing could not be accommodated, according to a spokesperson.

Late last month, an Alameda County judge ordered the university to freeze student enrollments over its impact on local neighborhoods, with housing availability being a prime issue. Meanwhile, a plan to lease 200 dorm rooms at Mills College has fallen through.

The university is trying to address the shortage by unveiling a 12-story student housing project at People’s Park that could accommodate about 1,100 students.

To be sure, not all campuses are experiencing a housing crunch.

“Student housing for each campus is unique,” Stett Holbrook, a spokesman for UC’s central president’s office, said in an email.

Holbrook pointed out that the UC system added 15,000 additional beds between 2016 and 2020, but added that UC “understands the challenges some students face in finding housing.”

At the Santa Barbara campus, administrators are scrambling to solve the problem in time for the start of the fall quarter. Despite efforts by student organizers to push the university to give students the option to take classes online, the campus won’t budge on its plan for in-person instruction. Instead, more students than ever are being housed in on-campus dorms and apartments, often three students per room. In some cases, lounge areas will even be rearranged to serve as rooms for students.

So far, the campus has been able to accommodate all freshmen, sophomores, and transfer students who met the priority deadline for requesting on-campus housing, said Andrea Estrada, a spokeswoman for the university. But that’s not the case for hundreds of juniors and seniors like Allen and other students who didn’t meet that deadline.

To get those students housed, campus officials are turning to nearby hotels. UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang said in a memo to the campus last month that administrators are negotiating with local hotels “to make rooms available to those who cannot find suitable housing elsewhere.” But even that would be only a short-term solution, as those rooms would only be available for the fall quarter.

Allen said that if the university can’t find a way to accommodate students like him, he’ll be just about out of options for finding stable housing.

“I’ll either stay with some friends, hopefully, they’ll let me sleep in the kitchen or the living room or something like that, or I’ll be sleeping in a car or maybe a tent,” he said.

‘Changes in leasing patterns’

The reason students at UC Santa Barbara have struggled to find off-campus housing is because of “changes in leasing patterns in Isla Vista and other college communities,” said Estrada, the spokeswoman for the university.

For example, houses in Isla Vista that in pre-pandemic years typically housed 16 students are now housing about 10 students, according to Gurleen Pabla, a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara and vice chair of the Isla Vista Tenants Union. Students in those houses are willing to pay higher rent prices to live in less-crowded housing and mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spreading, she said. “And then that just causes shortages.”

Searches on and Zillow turn up essentially no available housing nearby.

That’s something Dino Vicencio learned the hard way this past spring. Vicencio, a transfer student from LA Valley College who is starting his third year of college this fall, always planned to live off campus and didn’t immediately request on-campus housing.

He decided in May that he would attend UC Santa Barbara and immediately began searching for off-campus housing, but he found nothing. For the next couple of months, he kept looking for apartments. Landlords rarely even replied to his emails or returned his phone calls.

Eventually, he submitted an application for on-campus housing, but because he missed the priority deadline, he isn’t guaranteed accommodations. If he doesn’t secure housing before classes start later this month, Vicencio plans to get to his classes by taking an Amtrak train every weekday from his home in Burbank, a city in Los Angeles County.

“It’s a two-and-a-half-hour ride, but that’s what I’m planning on doing,” he said.

Others, like second-year student Isabella Roy, may forgo attending classes altogether this fall if they can’t find somewhere to live.

Roy said she and her roommates signed a holding deposit for an apartment in Isla Vista in the spring. In July, her landlord asked them to send proof of income. Three weeks later, according to Roy, she and her roommates were informed that the apartment was no longer available.

Since then, they have been “scrambling to search for housing,” she said, but like so many others, haven’t found anything viable.

If she can’t find anything before classes start, Roy plans to withdraw from the campus for the quarter and try to return for the spring. She said it’s especially disappointing because, after more than a year of living and taking classes at home, she was looking forward to finally being on her own.

“The pandemic has taken a toll on me. It’s been a very long year, and I was excited to leave and start my life, but that goes without saying,” she said.

Solutions: Online classes or hotels

Some students see an easy solution to the housing crisis: giving students the option to take classes online. That way, those who can’t find housing near campus can enroll in their classes without physically being in the area.

Groups including the Isla Vista Tenants Union and the office of the president for UC Santa Barbara’s student government have called on the university to create an online option, something that would help students like Allen.

Allen said he expects that if UC Santa Barbara allowed students to take their classes online, that would prompt some students to cancel their housing contracts, perhaps opening up space for him to live on campus.

At the very least, Allen could take classes from his family’s home in Contra Costa County. That wouldn’t be ideal, because his parents and two siblings all work from home, creating a “hectic” environment.

“I’d much rather have my own space where I can attend Zoom classes in peace, but if it comes down to it, if that’s my best option and my other option is to be homeless, then I’ll stay home,” he said.

In a campuswide memo last month, Yang, the chancellor, said campus leadership is “diligently monitoring” Covid-19 case rates in Santa Barbara and across the state, adding that administrators are “prepared to make modifications to our campus operations as needed.”

For now, however, UC Santa Barbara is committed to resuming in-person classes, Yang added. Providing a mix of in-person and online classes could be challenging, though some campuses are experimenting with new types of classrooms that give students the option of attending in person or remotely.

In the meantime, the Santa Barbara campus is trying to secure rooms for students at local hotels. Yang said that any costs for those rooms that exceed on-campus housing costs would be covered by the university. The campus is also accessible by bus from most of the hotels.

Pabla, the vice chair of the tenants union, said the hotel solution may be the only path forward given that the university is adamant about having exclusively in-person classes. But with the start of the quarter so close, she added that the university needs to move quickly.

“It looks like hotel vouchers are the best option right now, but we needed to get that going yesterday,” she said. “This is a lot of discussion that needed to happen a long time ago.”

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