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Why Some California Lawmakers Are Pushing For A Multi-Billion Fund To Build More Affordable College Housing

A female student, with long brown hair, walks across a college campus while looking at her phone.
In California, about 1 in 5 community college students struggles with housing.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
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Lack of affordable student housing in California — with recurring reports of college students having to couch surf or sleep in their cars — is not a new problem.

How to address it has also been an ongoing issue. Now some state lawmakers have proposed a bill to fund construction of housing at UC, CSU and community college campuses.

If passed, the legislation could yield $5 billion in zero-interest loans to:

  • Build student housing rented below local market rates.
  • Fund affordable housing for faculty and staff.

“Time and time again, I heard about a student who was having a tough time,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), one of the four lawmakers who introduced the bill last week.

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Housing Insecurity Hurts Performance

The legislators stress that housing is a chief expense for college students in California, and that housing insecurity affects their ability to perform in class. They estimate that the bill could help finance 25,000 additional beds throughout the state.

Housing insecurity can have “cascading impacts” on low-income students, McCarty added. “It makes it harder for them to graduate, which means they're in the system for a longer period of time. And that means they have more student debt in the end.”

But while the bill is intended to help students with the greatest need, it leaves it up to the colleges and universities to determine who’ll live in the residences.

The proposed bill comes on the heels of a recent deal between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the legislature, which provided $500 million for affordable student housing.

That deal created a grant process for public colleges and universities; and, as a CalMatters report signaled in Sept. 2021, though it seemed like a huge sum, it wasn’t enough to meet the state’s student housing needs.

Another gap: because the funds were designated for full-time students, most community college students were left out. This exclusion is significant, given that homelessness affects 1 in 5 community college students, compared to 1 in 10 CSU students and 1 in 20 UC students, according to a 2020 UCLA report.

Proposed Housing Projects (Some Controversial)

Late last year, a consultant on UC Santa Barbara’s Design Review Committee quit in protest over plans to build a largely windowless 11-story building for about 4,500 students, calling it “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent and a human being.”

The university, on the other hand, said the project “will be an important step in addressing the campus’s housing needs” and that it could potentially “relieve regional rental housing pressures by providing on-campus options for UC Santa Barbara students at a cost lower than current off-campus alternatives.”

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Other institutions in Southern California are also testing out ideas:

  • Compton College, located south of downtown Los Angeles, is at work on plans for prefabricated, on-campus housing that can accommodate parents who want to pursue higher education.
  • Less than 10 miles away, Long Beach City College launched a pilot program for unhoused students, allowing those who live in their cars to park on campus overnight, with access to restrooms and Wi-Fi.
  • Down by the border, Imperial Valley College constructed 26 off-campus “tiny homes” for students struggling with housing. In exchange, they pay $200 and commit to 10 hours of community service per month.

The zero-interest loan bill is a “tremendous opportunity for the state of California to become a partner in solving the affordable housing crisis,” said Mark Sanchez, President of Southwestern College in Chula Vista.
At his campus, student surveys routinely cite housing as a key challenge in completing their studies. He hopes the bill will enable the institution to build facilities that can provide childcare for students, which is another pressing need.

It's Not Just Students

Housing for faculty and staff also is top of mind at some campuses. At a UC Board of Regents meeting in mid-November, for instance, UC Irvine discussed its plans to demolish a two-story apartment complex and replace it with a higher-density project to provide them with more affordable options.

“Since our inception as a campus,” explained UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, “our housing program has been a vital tool in helping us recruit and retain the highest-quality faculty and staff.”

Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, said the bill could serve as a vehicle to support the construction of affordable housing for students.

However, because it also allows schools to use the loans to build housing for faculty and staff, “There is no way to predict how much of the housing built will be for students.”

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