Housing insecurity rises among US college students amid housing shortages and rising rents

BERKELEY, California. UC Berkeley sophomore Terrell Thompson slept in his car for almost two weeks at the start of the school year last fall, lived on a suitcase hidden in the trunk, and texted dozens of homeowners daily in a desperate search. place to live.

A successful student from a low-income family in Sacramento, California, studied business administration at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. However, Thompson piled his 6-foot body into the back seat of his Honda Accord at night, wondering how he would ever find a home in the prohibitively expensive Bay Area city of San Francisco.

“From an academic standpoint, it was tough because I worry about finding housing, I worry about my clothes, and I constantly worry about my car being broken into,” said Thompson, 19, who now lives in the one-room apartment he found. in September last year. “I was worried 24/7.”

College students in the US are looking for housing for the 2022-23 school year, and if 2021 was any sign, it won’t be easy. Last fall, college students from California to Florida were denied on-campus housing and forced to stay at home for a year or live in motel rooms or in vehicles as rising rents and decades of failure to build enough student housing came to a head.

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For some colleges, the housing shortage has been linked to increased demand from students who have been stuck at home during the pandemic. For others, including many in California, the housing shortage reflects a deeper conflict between colleges and homeowners who don’t want new housing being built for students, which they say is adding to congestion and noise.

In March, UC Berkeley said it would have to restrict student enrollment because of a lawsuit filed by angry neighbors over the expansion of the school. State legislators have expedited a fix to allow the campus to admit as many students as planned for the fall 2022 semester, but the legislation hasn’t been conducive to more housing.

According to an annual survey conducted by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, 43% of four-year university students nationwide experienced housing shortages in 2020, up from 35% in 2019. Students reported being unable to pay their utilities, rent or mortgage, living in overcrowded apartments, or moving to others due to financial hardship.

And for the first time since basic needs tracking began in 2015, the study found an equal percentage — 14% — of students in both four-year and two-year colleges who experienced homelessness in the past year, said Mark Helsman, director of the Center for Policy and advocacy.

“This is due to rising rents, the inability of communities and institutions to build enough housing for students, and other rising college costs that are creating the perfect storm for students,” he said.

For some students, the lack of affordable housing can mean the difference between going to college or not. Others run up huge debts or live so precariously that they miss out on all the added benefits of higher education.

Jonathan Dena, a first-generation college student from the Sacramento area, almost gave up on UC Berkeley for lack of housing, even though it was his “dream program.” He found a studio in the well-subsidized Rochdale Apartments for less than $1,300 a month, but he may have to move because simple apartments could close for seismic repairs.

Dena, 29, wants to continue living within walking distance of campus so she can do well in college.

But an urbanist and student government housing commissioner said it was “a little scary” how high rents are near campus. Online listings showed a newer one-person bedroom for $3,700, as well as a 240-square-foot (22-square-meter) bedroom for two with a shared bathroom for almost $1,700 per person per month.

“If I go to school in Berkeley, I would like to live in Berkeley,” he said.

Nationwide, rents have risen 17% since March 2020, said Chris Salviati, senior economist at Apartment List, but growth has been higher in some popular college campuses. Chapel Hill, NC saw a 24% increase in rents and 31% in Tempe, Arizona.

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In some cases, rent increases have been exacerbated by a housing shortage on campus.

Demand for on-campus housing was so strong last fall that the University of Tampa offered new freshmen a break if they postponed their studies until fall 2022. According to Apartment List, rents in Florida have skyrocketed by almost 30% compared to last year. .

Rents in Knoxville have risen 36% since March 2020, and they could get worse after the University of Tennessee announced a new lottery system for its residences this fall, saying it needs to prioritize housing for its larger freshman class.

Even two-year community colleges that traditionally didn’t provide dormitories are rethinking student needs as housing costs rise.

Last October, Long Beach City College launched a pilot program to provide up to 15 homeless students with space in a gated garage. They sleep in their cars and have access to bathrooms and showers, electrical outlets and the internet while they work with counselors to find permanent housing.

Uduak-Jo Ntuk, president of the college’s board of trustees, hesitated when asked if the program would be renewed.

“I want to say no, but I think we will,” he said. “This fall semester we will have new students coming in who will be in a similar situation, and it is impossible for us to do nothing.”

California prides itself on its robust higher education system, but struggles with housing at its four-year colleges. Berkeley is notoriously difficult, with fierce competition for the few affordable apartments within walking distance of campus.

“I definitely wasn’t prepared for this kind of housing stress every year,” said Jennifer Lopez, 21, a UC Berkeley graduate from Kudahy, in southeast Los Angeles County, and the first in her family to enroll to college.

She imagined spending all four years on campus in a dorm room, but found herself in a scramble for a safe and affordable place to sleep. The urban specialist currently occupies an attic space in a one-bedroom apartment shared by four students, one of whom sleeps in the dining room.

The total monthly rent is almost $3,700—ridiculously high for most US cities—but she’s grateful for it.

“If I hadn’t heard about this place, I would have either ended up in the basement or in this other apartment where I know (where) girls struggle with leaks and mold,” Lopez said.

The Basic Needs Center at UC Berkeley, which operates a food pantry for students and faculty, found in a snapshot survey that a quarter of students reported they “lacked a safe, regular, and suitable place to stay overnight” at some point. that moment since October. .

“This is a huge achievement,” said Ruben Canedo, co-chair of the UCLA System-Wide Committee on Basic Needs. “This generation of students is targeting the most expensive cost-of-living market, while also having the least amount of financial support available to them.”

Thompson, a business administration professional, began looking for an apartment last May, having spent his first year at home studying remotely to save money. He quickly realized that his $750 rental budget was grossly inadequate, and as a sophomore, he was no longer eligible for dorm priority.

By the time classes began at the end of August, he was in a panic. He tried to commute from his home in Sacramento, leaving before 6 a.m. to drive the 80 miles (130 kilometers) to Berkeley and returning home around midnight to avoid traffic.

But it was exhausting, so he started sleeping in his car. Initially, he parked far away in a place with no parking restrictions. He then parked in a parking lot between two student housing complexes closer to the campus, where wild parties kept him awake at night.

He attended classes, studied, and ate sparingly to save on rising food costs. He looked at the apartments, where five people were crammed into two bedrooms, and truncated possessions tucked under the beds.

He slept in his car for nearly two weeks until a sympathetic landlord, who also grew up in a low-income home, offered him a studio a short walk from campus. The rent is $1,000 a month and he hopes to stay until he graduates.

“I think I have a little PTSD factor,” he said.

Most students who choose to attend UC Berkeley have no idea about the housing situation, says 19-year-old freshman Sanaa Sodhi, and the university needs to do more to prepare students and support them in their search.

The political scientist is looking forward to moving out of her dorm and into the two-bedroom apartment she and three friends rent out. According to her, the apartment is old, but costs $3,000 a month. Housemates were willing to pay up to $5,200 for a secure location close to campus.

“Honestly, you don’t know the severity of the situation until you’re in it,” she said, adding that the landlords have all the cards. “They know that whatever price they set, we will inevitably have to pay it because we really have no choice but to live in our cars.”

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