Shortage of housing and soaring rents weigh on American students
BERKELEY, Calif. — Terrell Thompson, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, slept in his car for nearly two weeks at the start of the school year last fall, living in a suitcase hidden in the trunk and texting dozens of homeowners a day in a desperate search for a place to live.
This high-achieving student from a low-income household in Sacramento, California was majoring in business administration at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Still, Thompson tucked his 6-foot frame into the back seat of his Honda Accord at night, wondering how he could find a home in the exorbitant Bay Area city of San Francisco.
“Academically, it was tough, because I worry about finding a place to live and I worry about my clothes and I worry about my car being broken into all the time,” said Thompson, 19. years old, who now lives in a studio he found last September. “I was anxious 24/7.”
Students across the United States are looking for housing for the 2022-23 school year and if 2021 was any indication, it won’t be easy. College students from California to Florida were denied on-campus housing last fall and found themselves sitting year-round at home or living in motel rooms or vehicles as surging rents and decades of failure to build enough student accommodation have reached a fever pitch.
For some colleges, the housing crisis was linked to increased demand for students who had been stuck at home during the pandemic. For others, including many in California, the shortage reflects a deeper conflict between colleges and landlords who don’t want new housing built for students that they say increases congestion and noise.
In March, the University of California, Berkeley said it would have to limit student enrollment because of a lawsuit by angry neighbors over the school’s growth. State lawmakers have fast-tracked a solution to allow the campus to enroll as many students as planned for the fall 2022 semester, but the legislation does nothing to produce more housing.
Nationally, 43% of students at four-year colleges experienced housing insecurity in 2020, up from 35% in 2019, according to an annual survey conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in India. Temple University. Students reported being unable to pay utilities, rent or mortgage, living in overcrowded units or moving in with others due to financial hardship.
And for the first time since it began tracking basic needs in 2015, the survey found an equal percentage – 14% – of four-year and two-year college students who had experienced homelessness. over the past year, said Mark Huelsman, the center’s director of policy and advocacy.
“It’s a function of rising rents, the inability of communities and institutions to build enough student housing, and other university costs that create a perfect storm for students,” he said. he declares.
For some students, the lack of affordable housing could be the difference between going to college or not. Others go into massive debt or live so precariously that they miss out on all the extracurricular benefits of higher education.
Jonathan Dena, a first-generation student from the Sacramento area, almost rejected UC Berkeley because of the lack of housing, even though it was his “dream program.” He found a studio in the heavily subsidized Rochdale apartments for less than $1,300 a month, but he may have to move as the stripped-down units could close for an earthquake renovation.
Dena, 29, wants to continue living within walking distance of campus for a solid college experience.
But the urban studies major and student government housing commission officer said “it’s a bit scary” how high rents are close to campus. Online listings showed a new one-person bedroom for $3,700, as well as a 240-square-foot (22-square-meter) room for two people sharing a bathroom for nearly $1,700 pp. month.
“If I go to school in Berkeley, I would like to live in Berkeley,” he said.
Nationally, rents have risen 17% since March 2020, said Chris Salviati, senior economist at Apartment List, but the increase has been higher in some popular college towns. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, saw its rents go up 24% and Tempe, Arizona, 31%.
In some cases, rent increases have been exacerbated by a lack of on-campus housing.
Last fall, demand for on-campus housing was so high that the University of Tampa offered freshmen a tuition break if they deferred until fall 2022.
Rent in Knoxville has climbed 36% since March 2020, and it could get worse after the University of Tennessee announced a new lottery system for its dorms this fall, saying it must prioritize housing for a larger freshman class.
Even two-year community colleges, which traditionally did not 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 in a gated parking lot. They sleep in their car and have access to bathrooms and showers, electrical outlets and the internet while they work with counselors to find permanent housing.
Uduak-Joe Ntuk, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, hesitated when asked if the program would be renewed.
“I mean no, but I think we will,” he said. “We are going to have new students in the fall semester of this year who will be in a similar situation, and for us to do nothing is untenable.”
California prides itself on its robust higher education system, but struggles to accommodate its four-year colleges. Berkeley is notoriously tough, with stiff competition for the few affordable apartments within walking distance of campus.
“I definitely wasn’t ready to be this stressed about housing every year,” said Jennifer Lopez, 21, a UC Berkeley senior from Cudahy, in southeast Los Angeles County, and the first in her family to attend university.
She imagined she would spend the four years on campus in dormitories, but found herself looking for a safe and affordable place to sleep. The Urban Studies major currently divides an attic into what is technically a one-bedroom apartment shared by four undergraduate students, one of whom sleeps in the dining room.
The total monthly rent is nearly $3,700 — ridiculously high in most US cities — but she’s grateful for that.
“If I hadn’t heard of this place, I was either going to end up living in a basement or this other apartment I know (where) the girls are struggling with leaks and mold” , Lopez said.
UC Berkeley’s Basic Needs Center, which runs a pantry for students and faculty, found in a Snapshot survey that a quarter of undergraduates said they “lack a safe place , regular and adequate to stay and sleep at night” at some point since October .
“It’s huge,” said Ruben Canedo, co-chair of UC’s system-wide basic needs committee. “This generation of students navigates the most expensive cost of living market while having the least financial support accessible.”
Thompson, the business administration major, started looking for an apartment last May, after spending her freshman year at home taking distance learning courses to save money. He soon realized that his $750 rental budget was grossly insufficient, and as a sophomore, he no longer qualified for dorm priority.
By the time classes started in late August, he was in a panic. He tried to commute from his home in Sacramento, leaving before 6 a.m. for the 80-mile (130 kilometer) trip to Berkeley and returning home around midnight to avoid traffic.
But it was exhausting, so he took to sleeping in his car. Initially, he parked far away in a place with no parking limits. Then he parked in a lot between two student dormitory complexes closer to campus, where a rambunctious party kept him up at night.
He took classes, studied and ate sparingly to save on skyrocketing food costs. He looked at apartments where five people were crammed into two bedrooms with pared-down personal effects stored under the beds.
He slept in his car for nearly two weeks until a friendly landlord who had also grown up in a low-income home contacted him, offering a studio apartment within walking distance of campus. The rent is $1,000 a month and he hopes to stay until he graduates.
“I think I have a bit of PTSD,” he said.
Most students have no idea about the housing situation when they choose to attend UC Berkeley, said Sanaa Sodhi, a 19-year-old freshman, and the university needs to do more to prepare students and support them in their search.
The political science major is excited to leave the dorms and move into a two-bedroom apartment where she and three friends take over the lease. The unit is older but a bargain at $3,000 a month, she said. The roommates were willing to pay up to $5,200 for a safe place near campus.
“You honestly don’t know the seriousness of the situation until you get there,” she said, adding that the owners hold all the cards. “They know that whatever price they charge we will inevitably have to pay because we really have no choice but maybe to live off our cars.”
AP reporter Terence Chea contributed from Berkeley, Calif.