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When Anna Holman, a graduate student in theater, dance and performance studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, left the city last summer to conduct research, she didn’t know how hard it would be to return. Unable to secure campus housing, she ended up temporarily living in her car.
Holman says her experience is not unique. Homeless students have become a familiar fixture of higher education in California, forced to choose between aspirations and basic needs.
“I think the hardest thing about this situation is that everyone knows what is happening. Many of my professors knew I was homeless; so did the chair of my department,” Holman said. “The idea of homeless students just isn’t shocking anymore. Everyone just kind of shrugs and accepts it as a normal part of life here. We have reached the point where only the independently wealthy, those willing to accrue more student debt or those willing to be homeless will be able to attend graduate school in California.”
Though she has housing now—which eats up 70 percent of her paycheck as a teaching assistant—Holman said it takes her 45 minutes to commute to campus. With gas around $6 a gallon in California, she still struggles to make ends meet. Such instability has prompted Holman and other grad students to push UC Santa Barbara to raise their wages so they can afford basic needs.
In California, where public in-state tuition is relatively affordable compared to other states, it isn’t the cost of a college degree that’s giving students sticker shock—it’s the price of housing. A growing share face ever-rising rents in hot real estate markets that often lack campus housing options, forcing them to make extreme sacrifices or defer the dream of higher education.
Housing costs even surpass tuition and fees at many California colleges and universities, according to a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank. It’s an issue that impacts all students trying to balance their basic needs with the cost of an education, whether they attend community college, a four-year institution or graduate school.
To meet these challenges, some California colleges are building new housing facilities with rents below local market rates. As these projects move slowly toward fruition, students living off campus are stuck with long commutes or forced to live in hotels or vehicles.
Housing was a core issue in a legal battle that placed a court-ordered enrollment cap on the University of California, Berkeley—a mandate that required a quick fix from California lawmakers. While the enrollment cap no longer stands, the housing concerns raised by neighbors remain.
Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods—the group that forced the enrollment cap via a lawsuit filed on environmental impact grounds—has suggested the legislative fix “will hurt more students than it will help” and effectively lets the UC system off the hook for its unaddressed housing issues.
“Despite overwhelming evidence that UC has failed to house and support students, increasing rates of student homelessness, and increased campus crowding to the point that many students can’t graduate in four years, the bill allows UC to continue its rapid enrollment growth with no mitigation even where a court finds that UC has failed to analyze or mitigate population growth impacts,” Bokovoy wrote earlier this month after the enrollment cap was lifted.
“We don’t want new students to have to live in cars, campers and hotel rooms like they are in Santa Barbara,” Bokovoy added.
UC Berkeley spokesperson Adam Ratliff said 6,900 residential hall beds were available in fall 2021. According to its website, the university enrolled more than 45,000 students in fall 2021, though it does not offer a breakdown of how many attended classes online versus on campus.
“We understand that financing an education, including at UC Berkeley, is challenging for many students and families,” Ratliff wrote in an email. “The well-being of our students is critical, and we want to make sure students know there are resources available year-round. If a student is experiencing housing or food insecurity, we encourage them to contact our Financial Aid and Scholarships Office (FASO) to talk through the funding options they administer. Our financial aid team can also guide students through additional options, such as our UC Berkeley Food Pantry which can provide both emergency and longer term support for students and staff.”
The University of California system is growing—it aims to add 20,000 more students by 2030. But as students enroll, they often find that there’s no place for them on campus, forcing them to seek housing elsewhere.
A quick scan of online apartment listings in various California college towns turns up rents that are out of reach for many college students: nearly $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, and more than that for a similar unit in Santa Barbara. Prices skew higher closer to campus, decreasing gradually the farther away one gets. And with so much demand, landlords can afford to be picky; they often require potential occupants to earn three times the monthly rent, disqualifying many college students.
Joe Costello, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, describes the housing market near campus as a supply-and-demand issue, though he also believes the university and the state need to invest more. A starting point would be increasing graduate student pay so they can meet basic needs, he said.
“The university is accepting more students without building new housing. The surrounding community is struggling to deal with this increased population, and so rent goes up,” Costello said. “This is compounded by the fact that graduate student salaries are not rising at the same rate as the cost of living, so our effective salaries are getting lower every year. This has been a problem for years and years now, but the university has neglected to do much of anything about it, so now we are at a crisis point where it is effectively fiscal suicide to go to graduate school for many disciplines.”
UC Santa Barbara spokesperson Shelly Leachman said by email that the university currently has 24,030 students enrolled in on-campus programs, with approximately 10,700 beds available for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as an additional 592 family housing units.
“California is experiencing one of the worst housing crises in the country—a one-two punch of increasingly limited supply and sky-high costs—which is putting rental housing pressures on students across the state and throughout the UC system,” Leachman said. “UC schools face the particular challenge of meeting students’ needs for safe and affordable housing options, while simultaneously fulfilling their obligation to support mandated enrollment increases.”
Beyond the high cost of living, there are other challenges to contend with, notes UC Santa Cruz spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason.
“Housing continues to be our greatest challenge,” he said by email. “Santa Cruz is one of the least affordable housing markets in the country, but more than just being expensive, there is limited availability of housing for purchase or for rent. Rental vacancies have typically ranged between 1-2 percent since 2013. The loss of nearly 1,000 homes in Santa Cruz County to the 2020 CZU wildfire, along with the increased location flexibility for Silicon Valley workers, has exacerbated our housing problem.”
While demand for campus housing is high, sometimes the supply is nonexistent. Some colleges and universities simply don’t have enough beds; others have none at all. For example, only 11 of the 116 campuses in the California Community Colleges system offer student housing. And at colleges and universities that do offer housing, some have limited capacity—meaning students must live elsewhere—or they prioritize placing undergraduates in campus housing facilities.
A recent report from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office found that in fall 2021, the California State University system had a total of 8,700 students on housing wait lists at 13 campuses. For the University of California system, that number came out to 7,500 students on eight campuses. Fresh data provided to Inside Higher Ed by both university systems found even higher numbers: an unmet demand of 17,819 beds at Cal State and 12,816 students wait-listed for housing in the UC system.
The Cal State system—which enrolls nearly 500,000 students—reported that it currently has 59,260 beds at its 23 campuses. The UC System has 106,224 total beds.
While housing problems are abundant in California, the solution for many campuses comes down to simply adding more beds. But it’s a time-consuming process, and many colleges are playing catch-up, trying to reconcile their student head count with the number of available beds. Colleges are also grappling with high building costs, limited room to build and opposition from neighbors—and sometimes even from students themselves.
At UC Santa Barbara, where additional housing is desperately needed, plans are underway to build an 11-story residence hall that will house approximately 4,500 students. The building, designed by billionaire businessman Charlie Munger, has been derisively nicknamed “Dormzilla.” Munger—who is not an architect—has pledged $200 million to build the facility, which has faced a torrent of criticism, in part because many of the student rooms will not have windows.
Many see Munger Hall as a vanity project; the plans even prompted one architect to resign from UC Santa Barbara’s Design Review Committee in protest, describing the project as “unsupportable.”
Costello, who recognizes the housing challenges his fellow UC Santa Barbara students face, described Munger Hall as “a nightmare that proposes to solve the housing problem by packing students into rooms without windows roughly the size of a prison cell.”
But despite the resistance, UC Santa Barbara officials say the project will provide much-needed student housing at a significantly lower cost than hard-to-find off-campus apartments.
“We anticipate this new project will help address the needs of the community and our campus by providing thousands of students with an affordable, safe, and communal on-campus housing option at 20 percent below the market rate for off-campus housing. It will be a state-of-the-art building that provides students with a unique, affordable and rewarding living experience safely on campus,” Leachman wrote.
The UCLA Housing Guarantee
To borrow a cliché from a famous baseball movie: if you build it, they will come. And that’s what the University of California, Los Angeles, is counting on in appealing to prospective students.
UCLA recently completed three new campus housing facilities, under development since 2017, which now puts the university in a position to guarantee housing to all interested students.
“Students who enroll at UCLA and live in university housing their first year will be guaranteed housing: four consecutive years for incoming freshmen and two years for incoming transfer students,” Pete Angelis, assistant vice chancellor of UCLA housing and hospitality services, wrote by email.
Angelis added that capacity for university-owned housing facilities in fall 2022 will be 22,916.
“The new buildings not only allow us to offer a housing guarantee for our undergraduate students, but also reduce density in our on-campus community,” Angelis added, noting that “UCLA housing ranges from [20-50 percent] below market rates for West Los Angeles.”
Officials expect the four-year housing guarantee to give UCLA a competitive advantage.
Other campuses may follow suit. The Legislative Analyst’s Office reported that the Cal State system has 17 housing projects at 11 campuses under development, which will add more than 11,000 beds. The UC System has 11 such projects under development, adding 16,000-plus beds at six campuses.
California lawmakers are also working to provide a solution, channeling $2 billion to student housing projects in this year’s state budget to support projects at the UC and CSU systems and community colleges.
Another proposal to ease the California housing crunch is Assembly Bill 1602, which would create a $5 billion fund to provide no-interest loans to the UC, CSU, and community college systems to develop much-needed affordable housing projects for faculty, staff and students.
Costello, at UC Santa Barbara, said he currently lives in a “tenement situation.” He holds both the university and the state responsible for their failures to invest in student housing. He also suggests that higher ed in California is reaching a breaking point, with students bearing the brunt of the squeeze.
“A failure to solve this problem really puts the dream of public higher education in danger,” Costello said. “Right now it’s becoming harder and harder for the average person to pursue a graduate degree. If this continues, only the wealthy and privileged will be able to get through graduate school. And that is the death of the ideal of public education.”