Affordable housing crisis creates another hurdle for Maine students

Gabriella Santa Cruz, 18, of Billerica, Mass., a student at Southern Maine Community College, talks about her life situation while attending her first year of classes at the school. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The first thing Gabriella Santa Cruz did after deciding to enroll at Southern Maine Community College was to find out if she could live in student housing on campus.

It was early August. And by then, student housing at the community college’s South Portland campus was full. It had been months. And the waiting list had more than 100 students.

So Santa Cruz, like countless other students in southern Maine, has been thrust into a hyper-competitive rental market that has few, if any, affordable apartments to offer. She and other students have banded together to rent accommodation 30 minutes away, although she will have to work a full-time job to pay the rent.

As the new school year approaches, students at Maine colleges and universities are scrambling to find affordable housing near their campuses. And that is not easy.

Few schools in Maine have space to accommodate all, if not most, of their students on campus. This is especially true now because the housing market has spurred demand for dorms. And Maine community colleges are seeing an overall 12% increase in enrollment this year due to the state’s tuition-free program.

Off-campus rentals, especially in the Portland area, are rare, and those that do exist are generally far too expensive for students, who are more likely to be unemployed or have low salaries and credit scores.

SMCC and Central Maine Community College had such long waiting lists for student housing that they resorted to housing some students in nearby hotels. And they still can’t accommodate everyone.

Students at the University of Southern Maine in Portland rent homes as far from campus as Sebago, 45 minutes from town, to take advantage of off-season vacations.

An SMCC student said she plans to drive to school from her boyfriend’s house in New Hampshire, two hours each way, because she cannot afford rent in the area.

A graduate student at Northeastern’s Roux Institute sent over a hundred Facebook messages, texts and emails looking for a room to rent for less than $1,000 a month before desperately taking a more creative approach – cycling around the city asking people on the street if they knew of possible vacancies, and leaving post-its with their name, number and request for housing on doors and in mailboxes .

Santa Cruz is originally from Massachusetts but wanted to leave her home to experience something new and get out of her home state. She was drawn to SMCC in South Portland because of the Maine Free College Scholarship, which covers tuition and fees for full-time community college students who have graduated from high school or passed an equivalency exam between 2020 and 2023. The program starts after other states and federal grants have been applied.

At the suggestion of the college’s residential life staff, Santa Cruz posted on the school’s digital bulletin board that she was looking for a roommate. She was inundated with responses from people looking for a place and someone to live with. Eventually, Santa Cruz and two fellow freshmen found a three-bedroom apartment to rent for $2,850 a month in Saco, about 30 minutes from the SMCC campus.

She said she was happy to have her own apartment with friends, but she is worried about the cost, which will be $950 per person plus utilities.

“I’m a little scared because of the price it costs,” she said. “I know you’re supposed to earn three times your rent, but I’ve never earned that much in my life.”

To make ends meet, Santa Cruz plans to work 40 hours a week for $18 an hour at the job she just landed as a hostess at a Portland restaurant. This is in addition to completing a full course load at SMCC, which is required for her to retain the free college scholarship.

Joined by fellow volleyball players at Southern Maine Community College last week, Saco freshman Caitlyn Andrade, left, talks about student housing at the school. His friends are, left to right, Dakota Turner from New Durham, NH, Ashley Savage from Saco and Haleigh Wyatt from Saco. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Santa Cruz has been working since she was 14, she said, answering phones in a hospital and teaching cello lessons, among other things. “But it was just money for coffee and gas,” she said. “There wasn’t much at stake, but it’s different.”

The cost of student accommodation and apartments has increased in recent years.

Over the past 10 years, the average cost of room and board across the country at two-year public colleges has increased by 27%, at four-year public universities by 35%, and at private purpose colleges. 33% non-profit.

At SMCC, on-campus housing ranges from $6,600 to $7,400 per academic year, or approximately $733 to $822 per month. At the nearby University of Southern Maine, student housing costs from $5,678 to $8,776 per school year and at the University of Maine Orono from $6,018 to $8,998 per school year.

Meanwhile, the cost of rentals in the broader housing market has skyrocketed in Maine and across the country, especially since the pandemic began. According to real estate firm Redfin, the median asking rent in the country in July was 14% higher than a year earlier.

In Portland, the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment has risen 12% since this time last year, according to, a Redfin-owned apartment search engine. The average cost to rent a bedroom in the city is now $1,850, and 74% of all apartments in the city cost more than $2,101, also according to Rentals in neighboring towns are equally expensive.

Students tour the Southern Maine Community College Campus Center. The waiting list for on-campus housing at the South Portland campus is over 100 students. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Whether they live on or off campus, students struggle to pay.

About half of students attending two- and four-year schools in the 2019-2020 school year were experiencing housing insecurity, according to a study by Temple University’s Hope Center that surveyed 195,000 students across the country. This means that at best they could not pay their utilities or rent, and at worst they were expelled, moved three or more times during the school year, or had to leave their residence due to dangerous living conditions.

According to the same study, 14% of two- and four-year-old students surveyed had been homeless in the 12 months before the survey and 34% were food insecure in the 30 days before the survey was launched in fall 2020.

Insecurity was more common for most minority groups than for their white counterparts, and for LGBTQ and first-generation college students, the study found.

Along with the price of tuition and the loss of financial aid, the cost of rent and other living expenses is one of the top reasons students drop out of community colleges, according to a 2020 study from the University of Florida. And although graduating from a community college is associated with higher earnings and other socioeconomic and health benefits, those who do not complete their education are generally not able to benefit. benefits of a college education, according to the study.

Outside his family’s home in Gardiner, Dominic Beeler, 21, is one of 525 Southern Maine Community College students to secure on-campus housing at the South Portland or Brunswick campuses for the upcoming semester. . Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dominic Beeler was one of 525 SMCC students to be granted on-campus housing at the South Portland or Brunswick campuses for the upcoming semester. Its tuition is covered by state and federal grants. But he takes out loans to pay for his accommodation.

Beeler, 21, is from Lewiston. He left home during his junior year of high school and has since been in and out of homelessness. Student accommodation gives him a safe and comfortable place with internet access where he can focus on school. But, he said, if he can’t find accommodation in the next few semesters, he may have to drop out.

Colby College Education professor Adam Howard called the tuition and fees required to attend college “sticker price” and the cost of tuition and fees plus housing, food and everything else the “actual cost”.

“You can’t just go to college,” Howard said. “You have to live, buy food, and pay for gas and parking and, if you have kids, babysitting.”

At community colleges in Maine, in-state tuition is $2,880 and out-of-state is $5,760. But room and board ranges from $5,400 to $10,938 depending on school and accommodation.

“The number of financial hurdles and obligations that come with attending college is nothing short of extraordinary,” Howard said.

With rising rents and housing costs amid other inflationary pressures, Howard said he fears that at some point community colleges will soon become inaccessible to low-income students.

“We need to completely restructure the way we think about financial aid if we want college to be accessible to everyone,” he said. “Not just for the middle class, the upper middle class and the wealthy.”

Editor Claire Law contributed to this story.

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