California campus housing shortages leave thousands of students without an affordable place to live

Demand for campus housing throughout the University of California (UC) system continues to overwhelm supply, sparked by students who see campus housing as more affordable and safer than off-campus housing and are eager to engage in campus life, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Related: College students struggling to find affordable housing >

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation this week for a $1.8 billion loan program that provides no-interest loans for colleges to construct new student residences to prevent future housing shortages, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The UC system in particular hopes to increase its enrollment by 23,000 students by 2030.

However, California’s current college housing crisis has created an urgent need for colleges to help the thousands of students in the UC system, as well as in the California State University (CSU) system and the California Community Colleges, who are without campus housing this fall. Most UC and CSU campuses don’t guarantee housing for students all four years, and some campuses don’t guarantee it at all, EdSource reports.

Related: Colleges navigate a student housing crisis driven by shortages of on-campus rooms and surging rents nearby >

In the UC system alone, 9,400 students who requested campus housing do not yet have it, with some campuses cramming three students in dorm rooms to meet demand, says the LA Times. Other students are searching for off-campus housing in cities with some of the most expensive real estate in the country. In some cases, a lack of regular public transportation routes to some campuses has made it difficult for students to live in neighborhoods where affordable housing exists.

The impact of housing insecurity

UC’s college housing crisis has been especially detrimental to low-income students who are searching for off-campus lodging. Data from the UC system reveals that 35% of all UC undergraduate students are Pell Grant eligible, with UC Irvine, Davis, and San Diego each enrolling more low-income students than all Ivy League campuses combined. However, some off-campus landlords and property managers consider only student applicants who have a guarantor who earns four times the monthly rent. That requirement excludes students from low-income families, and the UC system has no way to regulate those real estate practices.

Related: Rise of pricey housing near campuses forcing lower-income students farther away >

Some students, unable to afford off-campus housing, are living in their vehicles. Matthew Chin,  a third-year student at UC Santa Cruz—located in a coastal town named the nation’s second-priciest rental market behind San Francisco—lives in a small trailer parked in a rented driveway an hour from campus. Before he bought a car, Chin took two buses to get to campus, and when he left too late to get back to his trailer, he had to sleep overnight in a forested part of campus. Ongoing housing and transportation difficulties left Chin so anxious and distressed that he failed chemistry and changed his major.

Related: Colleges, partners step up investments to address housing insecurity >

“For a lot of students and myself, not having secure housing creates a lot of anxiety and stress,” Chin, now majoring in environmental studies, tells the LA Times. “It does definitely contribute to a decline in academic performance. Socially, you feel estranged.”

Addressing housing shortages

Some UC campuses have opened new residences this fall to meet surging demand and are planning for additional housing expansion projects. New legislation exempting student housing projects from the California Environmental Quality Act makes it easier for UC, CSU, and community colleges to expand student housing into surrounding neighborhoods, EdSource reports.

UCLA became the first and only UC campus to guarantee housing for four years to first-year students and two years for transfer students after it opened two new residence halls providing 3,446 beds this fall. It also recently purchased two sites from the now-defunct Marymount California University 30 miles away from UCLA’s campus for $80 million—the largest land acquisition in UCLA’s history, according to the Chronicle. UC San Diego has three building projects in progress that will add 5,300 beds by 2025, allowing it to offer a four-year housing guarantee. UC Davis has also added 5,000 beds since 2017 and plans to provide another 1,500 beds for graduate students and students with families by fall 2023. 

“A lot of the students we’re accepting have housing and food insecurity, and we have an obligation to address that,” UC Board of Regents Chair Richard Leib tells the LA Times. “UC is the great equalizer. We have to get students housing and food so they can do well.”

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