How should California address college student housing crisis?

September 30, 2022

UC San Diego students move into their dorms. Students had to wear masks and were limited to two friends or family members to help them move in.

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To tackle a housing shortage that has left tens of thousands of students without stable places to live, California college leaders must try some new and innovative solutions in design, construction and financing, experts and students told an EdSource roundtable on Thursday.

In addition to building many new traditional campus dorms, other solutions could include sharing construction and tenancy with community organizations, giving subsidies to students for off-campus rent and converting existing campus facilities such as administrative buildings into residences, panelists said Thursday during the virtual EdSource event on the topic. When colleges build new housing, they should also consider sharing those facilities with nearby institutions in other systems, such as possible partnerships between community colleges and Cal State campuses, panelists added.

“I think what we have to really remember is that there’s no one strategy to address this housing issue,” said Rashida Crutchfield, associate professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach. “We have to have a myriad of options for students.”

Finding answers to the housing crisis is an urgent need for California colleges and universities. About 5% of University of California students, 10% of California State University students and 20% of California community college students have reported being homeless or housing insecure at some point in their education, according to a state Assembly report.

Because most UC and CSU campuses don’t guarantee housing for all four years — and in some cases don’t guarantee it to any students — students are often left to fend for themselves in such difficult rental markets as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Cruz. The housing supply in those areas is typically low and prices are high.

Among the students who have struggled to find affordable housing near their campuses is Ethan Kaplan, a fifth-year student at CSU Northridge in Los Angeles County. Monthly rent at the apartment Kaplan lived in last year has since jumped about $1,000 per month, forcing him and his roommates to move out.

Kaplan now lives at home with his parents. His commute to campus is 40 minutes and sometimes longer because of traffic. On some days, he has only one class and spends less time on campus than he does driving to and from school.

“It does make it difficult, from a mindset perspective,” he said during the roundtable. “You want to go into these classes with the best mindset possible in order to succeed, in order to get the most out of it that you can.”

He added that living off campus also makes him feel less connected to the campus community. Kaplan was previously active in a Filipino American student group at CSU Northridge, but this semester the organization has its meetings on Thursdays, when Kaplan doesn’t have any classes. He said belonging to the group was a great way for him to connect with other students, but he doesn’t see it as worthwhile to commute to campus solely for those meetings.

This year’s state budget included $1.4 billion for affordable housing construction at five UC campuses, nine CSU campuses and 12 community colleges.

That includes Compton College, which is getting an $80 million grant to build a facility on campus with 250 beds.

Compton College already has a housing subsidy program in place in collaboration with the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles. The program provides students with grants for off-campus housing. Panelists said subsidy programs can be especially helpful to students who have housing but are at risk of losing it. But it may not be a perfect solution: Keith Curry, president of Compton College, said the significant paperwork that students are required to complete for the grants has proven to be a burden.

Curry added that the college decided to push for an on-campus housing project after he heard from homeless students who voiced their need for stable housing.

“And some people might say, OK, Dr. Curry, why are we in the housing business when our job is to educate? But the student is not going to pass a transfer-level math or English course if they don’t have a place to sleep,” he said.

Another panelist, Su Jin Gatlin Jez, the executive director of California Competes, a nonprofit that conducts higher education research, said the state’s investment in affordable housing is important but added that simply building new dorms may not be sufficient. Jez said she worries that there will be empty beds in those dorms, especially at community colleges.

“Because community college students will see themselves going to that college for at most two years,” Jez said. “And it’s a lot to uproot your life to move into housing, even if you’re housing insecure.” She said that’s especially true for students who have children and need to find child care.

Jez advocated for more collaborations between community colleges and CSU or UC campuses. This year’s budget funded one such project involving both Imperial Valley College and San Diego State University. Those campuses will receive about $9 million in total for 51 new beds at San Diego State’s satellite campus in Calexico, which is close to the community college. Having more joint housing projects like that one would allow community college students to live in the same place for four years, Jez said.

Jez added that community partnerships can also be helpful. She pointed to rapid rehousing projects that already exist at several campuses to help students avoid homelessness. In Los Angeles County, four community colleges and two CSU campuses partner with the nonprofit organization Jovenes to provide students with rental assistance while in school.

UC Berkeley previously partnered with Mills College in nearby Oakland and let students live there, and is considering a similar partnership with Sonoma State, said Jo Mackness, UC Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor of student affairs. But Mackness added that she’s concerned those types of partnerships could be difficult for students since they would live far away from the main campus and may find it difficult to integrate into the UC Berkeley community.

To add more housing on its main campus, Berkeley officials are looking at converting existing spaces into housing, Mackness said. That includes everything from tennis courts to parking lots to administrative buildings. “There are lots of different parts of campus that could potentially house a high-rise building,” she said.

Curry, the Compton College president, said he appreciates that Berkeley is being creative with looking for solutions to its housing shortage. Curry said all campuses need to do everything they can to add housing or risk losing students.

“There is competition out there. We want to keep our students in the state of California, but we have out-of-state higher education institutions who are looking at our state saying, ‘You know what? We can offer more to these students than the state of California can.’ And that’s a problem,” he said.

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