In the face of housing shortages and rising rents, housing insecurity is rising among US college students

BERKELEY, Calif. — Terrell Thompson, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, slept in his car for nearly two weeks at the start of the term last fall, living out of a suitcase stowed in the trunk and texting dozens of landlords daily in a frantic search for a spot to live.

The high-performing student from a low-income household in Sacramento, California, studied business administration at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Still, Thompson folded his 6-foot frame in the back seat of his Honda Accord at night, wondering how he would ever find a home in the exorbitantly expensive San Francisco Bay Area city.

“Academically, it’s been tough because I’m worried about house hunting and I’m worried about my clothes and I’m constantly worried about my car being broken into,” said Thompson, 19, who now lives in a one-bedroom apartment that he found last September. “I was worried around the clock.”

College students across the US are looking for housing for the 2022-23 school year, and if 2021 was any indication, it’s not going to be easy. College students from California to Florida were denied housing on campus last fall and sat at home or in motel rooms or vehicles year-round as rising rents and a decade-long failure to build enough student housing peaked.

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

In March, the University of California, Berkeley said it had to limit student enrollment because angry neighbors had filed a lawsuit over the school’s growth. The state legislature quickly found a solution to allow the campus to enroll as many students as planned for the fall 2022 semester, but the legislation does nothing to help create more housing.

Nationwide, 43% of students at four-year universities were affected by housing insecurity in 2020, up from 35% in 2019, according to an annual survey by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. Students reported that they were not due to financial difficulties were able to pay utilities, rent or mortgages, live in overcrowded housing units, or move in with others.

And for the first time since basic needs assessments began in 2015, the survey found an equal percentage — 14% — of students at both four-year and two-year colleges who had experienced homelessness in the past year, said Mark Huelsman, the center’s director of policy and advocacy .

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

For some students, the lack of affordable housing could mean the difference between studying or not studying. Others run up massive debts or live so precariously that they miss out on all the extracurricular benefits of higher education.

Jonathan Dena, a first-generation college student from the Sacramento area, almost turned down UC Berkeley because of the housing shortage, even though it was his “dream program.” He found a studio in the heavily subsidized Rochdale Apartments for under $1,300 a month, but he may have to relocate because the bare-bones units could close for a earthquake-proof renovation.

Dena, 29, wants to continue living within walking distance of campus to have a solid college experience.

But the major in urban studies and the student government’s housing commissioner said “it’s kind of scary” how high the rents are near the campus. Online listings showed a newer one-bedroom room for one person for $3,700 and a 22-square-foot bedroom for two people sharing a bathroom for nearly $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 the increase has been larger in some popular college towns. Rents rose 24% in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and 31% in Tempe, Arizona.

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

Last fall, demand for on-campus housing was so high that the University of Tampa offered incoming freshmen a sabbatical if they were postponed until fall 2022. According to Apartment List , rents in the city of Florida have skyrocketed by almost 30 % compared to last year .

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

Even biennial community colleges that traditionally have not provided dormitories are rethinking student needs as housing costs rise.

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

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

“I want to say no, but I think we will,” he said. “We will have new students coming into the Fall semester this year who will be in a similar situation and it is untenable that we are not doing anything.”

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

“I was definitely not prepared to be so stressed out about the apartment every year,” said Jennifer Lopez, 21, a UC Berkeley senior from Cudahy in southeast Los Angeles County and the first in her family to graduate from college visited.

She imagined spending all four years on campus in dormitories, but found herself in a scramble for a safe, affordable place to sleep. The Urban Studies course currently shares an attic 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 in most US cities — but she’s thankful for it.

“If I hadn’t heard of this place, I would either be living in a basement or this other apartment that I know the girls are struggling with leaks and mold,” Lopez said.

The Basic Needs Center at UC Berkeley, which operates a pantry for students and faculty, found in a Snapshot poll that a quarter of students reported they had “not had a safe, regular, and appropriate place to stay and sleep” since October have been missing.

“This is tremendous,” said Ruben Canedo, co-chair of UC’s system-wide Basic Needs Committee. “This generation of students is navigating the most expensive cost-of-living market while having the least financial support available to them.”

Thompson, the business administration student, began looking for an apartment last May after spending his freshman year at home taking classes remotely to save money. He quickly realized that his $750 rental budget was grossly inadequate, and as a sophomore, he no longer qualified for dorm priority.

When classes started in late August, he panicked. He attempted to commute from his home in Sacramento, leaving before 6 a.m. to drive the 130 kilometers (80 miles) to Berkeley and returning home around midnight to avoid traffic.

But that was grueling, so he started sleeping in his car. At first he parked far away in a spot with no parking restrictions. He then parked in a lot between two college dorm complexes closer to campus, where boisterous parties kept him up at night.

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

He slept in his car for almost two weeks until a friendly landlord, who also grew up in a low-income household, offered him a studio 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 little PTSD factor,” he said.

Most students are unaware of the housing situation when they choose UC Berkeley, said 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 the dormitories and into a two-room apartment where she and three friends pay the rent. The unit is older but a steal at $3,000 a month, she said. The roommates were willing to pay up to $5,200 for a secure spot near campus.

“You don’t really know the seriousness of the situation until you’re in it,” she said, adding that landlords have all the cards in their hands. “They know that we will inevitably have to pay the price they are asking because we have no choice but maybe to live off our cars.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. In the face of housing shortages and rising rents, housing insecurity is rising among US college students

Dais Johnston

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