Credit: UC Santa Cruz/Flickr
UC Santa Cruz students move into a dormitory on Sept. 15.
This story was updated Sept. 28. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 886 to exempt student housing projects from the California Environmental Quality Act.

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Timothy Vidales was desperate for housing, so he applied to a Craigslist ad for a room in a warehouse in Santa Cruz. The room had neither amenities nor furniture, but it was listed for $800 per month by a landlord who suggested that the occupant bring a tent.

Vidales, an environmental science major at the University of California Santa Cruz, had already unsuccessfully applied to about 50 off-campus rooms as he looked for somewhere to live during the 2021-22 academic year. When he learned that the room from Craigslist was also already filled, he gave up.

“That’s when I knew I was screwed,” said Vidales, who decided to take a yearlong leave of absence from college.

Vidales is one of tens of thousands of students across California’s colleges and universities who struggle to find stable housing. About 5% of UC students, 10% of California State University students and 20% of California community college students report being homeless at some point during the academic year, according to a state Assembly report. But the problem extends beyond those who are homeless. Other students end up with expensive, crowded or inconveniently located housing.

Most UC and California State University campuses don’t guarantee housing to students for four years, and some don’t guarantee it for any years. Only about a dozen community colleges have on-campus housing at all.

State lawmakers have begun to respond to the crisis, which has existed for years amid soaring rents.

This year’s budget included $1.4 billion to build more student housing. That money is for housing projects at five UC campuses, nine CSU campuses and 12 community colleges.

At the same time, legislation signed Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, could make it easier for campuses to build housing on their own. Senate Bill 886 would exempt student housing projects built on land owned by UC, CSU or a community college from the California Environmental Quality Act. Recently, housing projects at campuses including UC Berkeley have been stalled by lawsuits citing CEQA.

Building new housing, though, will take years to make an impact and does nothing for current students. Some campuses and students themselves have turned to short-term solutions for relief, from living in vans near campus to allowing students to sleep in their cars overnight in campus parking lots. Other campuses are looking to convert existing buildings into housing.

UCLA, meanwhile, announced Tuesday that it has purchased properties from Marymount California University in San Pedro and Rancho Palos Verdes, about 30 miles south of UCLA’s main campus in Westwood. UCLA is still planning how it may use the sites, but it could accommodate an additional 1,000 students, some of whom could be housed on the campuses. Chancellor Gene Block said he hopes that some programs will be operating on the sites next year.

However it’s accomplished, campus officials, students and advocacy groups agree that the state’s colleges desperately need to keep expanding their housing. Research has shown that students living in campus housing are more successful than their peers.

“They get better grades, they retain better, and they’re more likely to finish on time,” said Leon Wyden, the vice president of finance and administrative services at CSU San Marcos, which is getting $91 million from the state to build new housing.

Expensive and lacking in supply

When Vidales started his leave of absence last fall, he took a full-time job with a financial firm based in Sacramento. He saved enough money for a car so he could get an apartment outside of Santa Cruz. This past spring, he signed a lease for an apartment that’s a 25-minute drive from campus. Because parking availability on campus is so limited, he parks off campus and rides a bus to class.

Vidales acknowledges that his situation isn’t ideal, but said he’s looking forward to graduating and being able to focus on working.

Santa Cruz has a particularly dire housing crisis. The university currently has enough on-campus housing to accommodate just over 40% of its students. The rest are forced into the off-campus housing market, where supply is tight. The average vacancy rate in the area was 3% in 2018, according to an analysis commissioned by UCSC at the time, “illustrating how few properties are available within the market.”

A 2020 survey by UC found that almost 9% of Santa Cruz students are homeless, defined as someone who has lacked a safe place to sleep at some point over a 12-month period. That’s the highest rate across the system’s nine undergraduate campuses.

Sam Walsh

This summer, Santa Cruz seniors Sam Walsh and Andre Assadi were searching for housing with friends. They applied to several places, but only one was promising: a four-bedroom home renting for $8,000 a month.

That was far more than they had hoped for, but they considered it because the start of the quarter was closing in. But the more they learned about the house, the less they liked it. According to Assadi, the place reeked of marijuana and was filled with stuff they didn’t want. They’d be paying for the garage even though the landlord wanted to keep her personal items there. And they were expected to pay property taxes.

They decided against renting it and eventually found a better deal: a 3,000-square-foot home for $7,000 per month divided between six roommates.

But the house has drawbacks, too. If they were to walk to campus, it would take them about three hours. A bike ride would take over an hour. Driving would take just 15 minutes, but on-campus finding parking is scarce. “So we’re still having discussions on how we’ll carpool to school or if we’ll bike or if we’ll take a bus that comes a couple times a day,” Walsh said.

The process has been discouraging for Assadi, who said he would “absolutely not” have attended Santa Cruz if he had known how difficult it would be to find housing.

Other UC campuses also suffer from housing shortages. UC Berkeley has enough on-campus housing for only about 20% of its students. At the same time, Berkeley has been asked by lawmakers to increase its enrollment of California residents. At last week’s UC board of regents meeting, regent Jay Sures said that expectation may be unrealistic.

“I think we’re going to have to get real here about this conversation of, on one hand, increasing enrollment and bringing more students to Berkeley, and on the other hand, we have no place to put them,” Sures said.

At CSU, the nation’s largest public university system with about 480,000 students, only 10% of them are housed on CSU campuses. CSU estimates that 32,700 students need housing assistance. Plus 14,900 students who lack stable housing need to be subsidized, and an additional 8,900 low-income students who don’t graduate within six years would be able to finish sooner with subsidized housing.

The vast geography and demographics of the 23-campus system mean that there’s considerable variability across the campuses. For example, CSU Monterey Bay houses about 41% of its students, while Fresno State mostly serves commuter students, according to a legislative report by the system released earlier this month.

In many CSU communities, housing available off-campus is often overpriced, especially compared with on-campus housing, according to a CSU report to the Legislature.

The campus-by-campus nature of the issue is similar at UC, with each campus left largely to its own devices to deal with its housing crunch.

Student parents need housing too

Maria Linares, a CSU Fullerton graduate student, rents a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her three children. A single mom, she is currently going through a divorce and relies on her income to pay expenses. She pays $2,900 a month in rent and about $160 in utilities.

“I barely make enough to cover the rent,” Linares said. “Some months I’ve had to choose between paying the rent and my car payment.”

When Linares first enrolled as an undergraduate on the Fullerton campus in 2017, she searched unsuccessfully for on-campus options for students with children.

Linares isn’t alone. As a member of the campus student government, she heard from students that there are not enough affordable housing options.

“Many struggle to stay in college because they cannot afford to live near the campus or on campus, so they end up dropping out of college and moving back home,” she said.

For student parents like Linares, finding on-campus housing is especially difficult because most on-campus units are traditional dorms that aren’t viable for families, said Su Jin Gatlin Jez, the executive director of California Competes. She said she hopes that as campuses build more housing, they’ll consider the needs of student parents who may prefer non-traditional student housing such as apartments.

Student housing is already relatively rare at California’s community colleges. Only 11 out of 116 campuses offer housing of any kind.

A few campuses are already planning to build housing specifically for families. Among the community colleges that received grants to build housing in this year’s budget, three of them — Fresno City College, Napa Valley College, and Cosumnes River College — are using the funds to build affordable family housing. About 1 of every 10 community college students who apply for financial aid are parents, according to UC Davis’s Wheelhouse research center.

In Fresno, the 75-unit project is expected to cost more than $34 million and will include studios, two bedroom/two bath and three bedroom/three bath apartments. Occupancy will be aimed at the lowest-income single students and students with families, according to plans from State Center Community College District, Fresno City College’s parent district. A 3,500-square-foot multi-use center is also part of the project. But the project isn’t expected to be completed until 2024-25.

“If (the new housing) were actually affordable, then it would benefit me,” said Frankie Whited, who now rents for $500 from her parents but is looking forward to becoming more independent. “‘I’m tired of looking into apartments, but it would cost me $1,800 at the end of the month, and that’s not affordable at all with my minimum wage part-time job. Even affordable housing in Fresno isn’t affordable.”

State Center trustee Annalisa Perea, who also works as a city planner, said the district doesn’t have a site yet and is going to have to get creative about where to build.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to have to build vertical, because we can’t go horizontal, at least at Fresno City College,” she said. The campus is already constructing new buildings in the spaces around its main campus, which is in the middle of a city plagued by urban sprawl.

Perea said the college has pushed for state money specifically to accommodate student parents.

“A big segment of our population is older individuals that are coming back to school to either upskill or learn a new skill. In many cases, our older students have families, they have partners and children. So I think it’s important to be accommodating and to be cognizant of who it is that we are serving — and in many cases, it’s students with families.”

Finding solutions

Across campuses in recent decades, students have advocated for more support with alternative forms of housing. At UC Santa Cruz, for example, the university-owned Camper Park housing, where students live in a campground, began as a student-led protest of sorts in 1983. Students who had trouble finding housing on or near campus began living in their vehicles, some of them camper vans, while parked on a campus lot.

By the following year, the university had agreed to allow the students to remain on the lot if they paid $115 per month to rent the space. Decades later, in 2016, the university replaced the existing trailers and vehicles with 42 university-issued mobile homes that now cost between $695 and $775 per month. Students who live there have access to restrooms, showers, laundry facilities and a lounge/study room.

Other campuses have tried finding short-term housing solutions.

In Southern California, Long Beach City College recently piloted a program that allows to apply to sleep in their vehicles overnight in an on-campus parking lot that came with a security guard, easy access to restrooms and showers and electrical outlets.

“We don’t look at this as a long-term solution,” Mike Muñoz, the college’s interim superintendent-president, told EdSource when the program began in 2021. “This is really a transitional solution. And so we kind of case-manage these students in as quickly as possible and transition them to more stable forms of housing.”

While overnight parking for students is not an option at every campus, it has the potential to temporarily alleviate stress for students. It especially helps students who would otherwise have to live in their vehicles on residential streets where they may incur pushback from residents and law enforcement.

“Nontraditional housing seems like something that’s underexplored. It’s unfortunate that that stigma exists,” said Christian Miley, a UC Santa Cruz graduate who had a tough time finding housing and spent two months sleeping in a tent in the woods near campus. “I’m sure there’d be a lot of issues that would have to be figured out with something like that, but we just tend to build more of the same stuff that doesn’t really seem to be working or delivering the benefits that people need.”

Building new housing

The $1.4 billion in housing grants being distributed across the state provide campuses a rare opportunity to build new, affordable housing, said Wyden, the CSU San Marcos official.

Typically, when campuses want to build new housing, they have to borrow money to do so, which is more expensive, Wyden said. Those costs are inevitably passed on to students.

“But when you don’t have to borrow money, then you don’t have to pay interest costs, and then all of that flows down to reduce the cost for our students,” he added.

The Legislature awarded CSU $492.5 million as part of the Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program to build 3,099 affordable beds at nine campuses. The system is also providing about $269 million in matching funds. CSU estimates that, based on construction projects scheduled from 2022 through 2025, an additional 4,600 beds will emerge. The system also plans nearly 10,000 more beds for 2026 and beyond to come from new or expanded housing.

The housing grants are especially helpful to the 12 community colleges that are getting a total of $546.7 million in grants, the most of the three systems. Historically, community colleges have been underfunded compared with UC and CSU campuses, and building housing hasn’t been an option, said Theresa Tena, vice president of administration at Cosumnes River College.

“This investment from the state changes that,” Tena said. Cosumnes River College received a $44 million grant and plans to begin construction in December, with the goal of opening the 92-unit complex in fall 2024.

When campuses have tried to build housing on their own, they have sometimes encountered obstacles.

Two housing projects at UC Berkeley have recently been delayed by lawsuits. One of them, the Upper Hearst project, would add 225 beds. But the project was stalled after a neighborhood group sued the university, citing CEQA and saying the campus hadn’t considered the environmental impacts of the project. That lawsuit led to a court-ordered enrollment freeze at Berkeley last year. Lawmakers and Newsom saved Berkeley from enrollment cuts, but the housing project remains delayed.

A separate Berkeley housing project, at People’s Park, was also halted by court order last month, which also stemmed from a lawsuit citing CEQA.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman. “It’s frustrating because of the delay and expense. It’s frustrating because there’s an urgent need.”

CEQA lawsuits have also been brought against housing projects at UC’s San Diego and Santa Cruz campuses, as well as against UC Davis’s Aggie Square project, which the campus is billing as an “innovation hub” on its Sacramento campus that will be home to research facilities, classrooms and student housing. Despite the lawsuit, construction on Aggie Square began in June, and campus officials say the project is on track to open in 2024.

New legislation could help campuses avoid lawsuits in the future. By exempting student housing projects from CEQA, SB 886 could allow campuses to fast-track housing projects.

“Using CEQA to delay or halt student and faculty housing projects has greatly impacted California campuses, increasing the cost of living in and around campuses, pushing thousands of students and staff into housing insecurity or homelessness,” state Sen. Scott Wiener’s office said in a statement. Wiener, D-San Francisco, is the author of the bill, which was approved by both chambers of the Legislature and now awaits a decision from Newsom, who has until Friday to sign or veto the bill.

In the meantime, campuses will look for additional solutions. At Berkeley, that means examining property it already owns and converting existing spaces into housing. Mogulof said the campus is looking at everything from tennis courts to parking lots to administrative buildings as potential sites for housing projects.

“We have our work cut out for us, but that’s how urgent it is,” Mogulof said.

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  1. Adan Jara 2 months ago2 months ago

    If some other states out in the middle of nowhere can build on-campus student housing and rent it out for as low as $400 per month I don’t see why we can’t do the same


    • Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

      Many campuses do not have space to build housing. A few, particularly Davis and Merced do. UCLA, UCSB, UCSC, UCB, among others do not have much space.

  2. Julie Gerien 2 months ago2 months ago

    For too long, the California state legislature has the state college system supporting the state’s best and brightest students for less tuition than other private institutions. It’s hard to think about asking students to put themselves in the position of having to live in their car to get an education, no matter how reputable, if any other option is available or if private schools are offering housing. The legislature’s view that all of … Read More

    For too long, the California state legislature has the state college system supporting the state’s best and brightest students for less tuition than other private institutions. It’s hard to think about asking students to put themselves in the position of having to live in their car to get an education, no matter how reputable, if any other option is available or if private schools are offering housing. The legislature’s view that all of the other costs to students beyond tuition are some kind of luxury is absurd as any student or parent of a student will tell you. If the system is to survive, communities and the legislature will have to come together to support the students that will be future employees of companies in those communities and the politicians in the government.

  3. Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

    In many college towns the problem is exacerbated by the locals who love colleges but hate students. Davis would be a great example as they have lots of room for student housing but would prefer to have the students live in Woodland. The real problem with Berkeley is rent control. Rent control is terrible for students who are transient and favors older residents who live there for long periods of time. I would love to … Read More

    In many college towns the problem is exacerbated by the locals who love colleges but hate students. Davis would be a great example as they have lots of room for student housing but would prefer to have the students live in Woodland. The real problem with Berkeley is rent control. Rent control is terrible for students who are transient and favors older residents who live there for long periods of time. I would love to see a human rights driven challenge to rent control as it discriminates against students.