California plans $ 500 million for more student housing amid growing shortage

New student accommodation at UC Merced. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Free tuition is great and California excels in this area compared to the rest of the country. But with sky-high rents, affordable housing has become the biggest expense for most students – and it’s harder to find relief.

Lawmakers have a plan for it: They poured $ 500 million into this year’s state budget so that public colleges and universities can build affordable housing or renovate existing properties.

The plan – which is part of a $ 2 billion, three-year commitment if the legislature fully funds it – may seem like a huge sum, but the amount of housing the money can build is likely a mistake. rounded up in the state’s total student need.

“It’s a drop in the bucket, but every drop counts,” said Dana Cuff, professor at UCLA and director of CityLab, an urban design research center.

The housing program that lawmakers approved last week and which awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s expected signing is new – part of the state budget’s cash surplus this year. The governor initially proposed $ 4 billion for student housing, but it was cut in half during negotiations with the legislature. The agreement:

  • Creates a grant process that colleges apply to, allocating 50% of the money to community colleges, 30% to California State University, and 20% to the University of California;
  • Cap rents for low-income students at a low percentage of the region’s median income. In Los Angeles, the monthly rent would be $ 700 per student;
  • Said the money is only for full-time students, which by default excludes most community college students.

If the full-time requirement slows community college applications, “we can adjust for the future,” said Nancy Skinner, Democrat and Oakland state senator who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

This would require another act of the legislature to change the terms of the housing program, but it does not rule out that the promise of cheaper rent may force more community college students to enroll full-time if their campus take the money. A full-time schedule means getting a degree faster, but often students can’t attend as many classes due to work obligations.

The argument for more student housing is politically obvious – only one Republican lawmaker voted no on the measure. It “relieves the pressure on student housing costs while simultaneously increasing the supply around universities and helping to improve housing affordability in these areas in general,” said HD Palmer, spokesperson for the Department of Finance. by Newsom.

But the housing problem that plagues the whole of higher education comes down to a math problem in primary school: building houses for students is expensive, probably hundreds of thousands of students need housing. affordable, and all of this is an amount that far exceeds what the state provides in its housing plan.

Scope of the housing problem

Surveys show that large numbers of students lack reliable housing options, which means they live in cars, surf on a couch, temporarily reside with their family, or seek other options that make their lives better. unstable – a terrible recipe for doing well in school.

More than a third of students reported some housing insecurity in California, according to a 2019 California Student Aid Commission survey. But this masks the range of conflicts according to the student. More than half of Los Angeles community college students have experienced housing insecurity, according to a 2016 survey. Community college students are often older and have less income, so their economic safety nets and social are more threadbare. But even at the University of California, 16% of those surveyed were in housing precariousness, and 6% of students who receive federal grants because of their low-income status have experienced a homelessness crisis.

The UC had 100,000 beds available for students last fall and plans to create space for 25,000 more by 2025, but the system enrolls 285,000 students. (Although not all students without student accommodation want it.)

The scale is great. The same goes for the price to pay for housing all these students.

Cost of housing a single student

It is difficult to calculate how much it costs to build a student housing unit. Some measures relate to the price per bed, which brings down the average cost because it costs a third to have three students in a room to have one student living in a room.

“We don’t have a cost per bed estimate,” said Palmer of Newsom’s finance department.

The Cal State system built enough units to house 12,800 students between 2014 and 2020 at a cost of $ 1.3 billion, which is roughly $ 100,000 per bed – a number likely higher today ‘hui given the drastic rise in the prices of building materials. The system also calculated that there were 17,700 students with “unmet” housing needs.

All of these numbers point to a cost of $ 1.8 billion just to build the units Cal State says it needs.

But the state’s new wave of student housing money commits only 30% of the total $ 2 billion in Cal State, or $ 600 million – far less than is likely needed. to meet student demand.

A housing project at UCLA that is supposed to provide 1,159 beds by next year costs $ 180,000 a bed. The 20% that the entire UC system must draw from the $ 2 billion pool would not be enough to cover two of these structures.

And it’s possible that using the numbers for dorms underestimates the true cost of the accommodation students need, Cuff said. This is because many students are older and have families, especially at community colleges. These households need more space and amenities, such as kitchens. In this case, the cost of units would be closer to what cities spend on affordable housing, which averaged $ 425,000 per unit in 2016.

But since colleges could build on land they own, especially community colleges that have more space available, a key expense – the purchase of land – for building houses would disappear.

Should Community Colleges Get the Most Money?

There are complaints within UC that the system should have received a larger share of the state’s money, in large part because it has a large housing program and can put the money in. work quickly.

Lawmakers have left the door open to funding a housing plan for students from more than one of the three state systems.

Student housing would be a new business for most community colleges, which typically do not operate dormitories. About a dozen of California’s 116 community colleges offer housing, suggesting the system has less experience getting into housing construction. The publicly funded housing program provided for this, setting aside up to $ 25 million that community colleges can use for planning, like legal fees and engineering studies.

“I highly expect that in the first year, we weren’t seeing as many or as many proposals from community colleges,” Skinner said.

Instead, the plans will come from Cal States and CUs that have more experience in housing development.

“Community colleges were all designed to get housing in their neighborhood,” Cuff said. But with rents and land prices skyrocketing, colleges need to build housing to create community for their students.

It’s also a good use of state money, said Paavo Monkkonen, professor of town planning at UCLA. Unlike grants or financial aid, housing is a one-time expense that pays dividends because it can be used over and over.

But it is certain that the state needs more housing, otherwise units built with this new money could lead to a lottery system where only a lucky few get units at a reduced price. “A better system would be one in which there is a long term plan to grow the stock enough that anyone who wants to live in it can do so,” he said.

CalMatters is a public service journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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