California students, institutions scramble amid housing crunch

California college students are navigating an unprecedented affordable housing crisis. A number of students are reporting homelessness, living in cars or hotels, and commuting long distances to campus. College officials, meanwhile, are chasing solutions, with some more well-received than others, the Los Angeles Times reports.

‘A perfect storm’

A new report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office shows that, as of this fall, the University of California and California State University systems had more than 16,000 students on housing waitlists. At UC Berkeley, which denied thousands of housing requests this fall, high rents and a lack of available properties have prevented 40 percent of undergraduates from living in the surrounding city.

Twenty percent of students in the 116-campus California Community Colleges system, meanwhile, have reported homelessness. Just 12 of the system’s campuses offer housing programs.

Related: College students struggling to find affordable housing >

Several factors have exacerbated the state’s housing crunch, including reduced occupancy in dorm rooms and rental properties during the pandemic. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 also led students to delay or shift their college plans, and desperation made students especially vulnerable to housing scams.

“There were just so many different things that culminated in a perfect storm,” Robin Unander, a UC Santa Barbara student legal services advisor, told the LA Times. “I’ve been working with the university legal center for 18 years and I’ve never seen a housing crisis like this one.”

Campuses, policymakers working to find solutions

College officials are pursuing short- and longer-term remedies, including construction of new dorms. Since 2015, CSU and UC have constructed approximately 14,300 and 21,700 additional beds, respectively. CSU is planning an additional 23 projects to add 13,300 beds, and UC has housing projects in the works, although several have been held up by litigation. Even the California Community Colleges system, which wasn’t designed to offer residential campus options, is requesting grants for dorm projects at 81 colleges.

A plan to build a 4,500-bed “mega dorm” at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), meanwhile, has made headlines and drawn scrutiny. Just 6 percent of units in the project, designed and financed in part by billionaire Charles Munger, would have windows. Campus officials say the project is still in the early planning stages.

For the short-term, UCSB is housing some students in hotels; others are residing in converted vans. UCSB students interviewed by the LA Times spoke of the stress and isolation of attending college amid the housing shortage.

Recognizing that some students have been forced to live in their vehicles, Long Beach City College launched a Safe Parking Program that allows enrolled students to stay in their cars overnight on campus. They have access to restrooms and WiFi throughout the night.

Although the state Assembly does not usually fund college dorms, some lawmakers are pushing to get involved. Citing the “legislative push to dramatically expand enrollment for California students,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) said legislators “think it’s smart for us to get in the business of helping build more student housing.” McCarty recently helped secure $2 billion in state contributions through 2023-24 for student-housing projects at California State University, community college, and UC campuses.

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