December 18, 2023 – Higher Education Senior Staff Attorney Jetaun Stevens spoke to the College Futures Foundation for their monthly feature, T.E.A. with College Futures, which highlights efforts addressing inequities in and around higher education— related to socio-economic mobility—and seek learnings/ inspirations directly from changemakers. She discusses the recently-launched California Affordable Student Housing (CASH) Coalition and offers valuable insight and feedback for equity champions to help address housing insecurity interviewed by T.E.A. with College Futures. She discusses the recently-launched California Affordable Student Housing (CASH) Coalition and offers insight into how equity champions can help address housing insecurity.
Q: We’d love an introduction to The California Affordable Student Housing (CASH) Coalition. Tell us more about how and when the Coalition came to be and provide some insight on your current goals/objectives.
A: Thanks for the invitation to share more about our affordable student housing work. Housing is often the biggest cost for college students—even more than tuition. The percentage of students struggling with housing insecurity across our higher education system is astounding, with just under 60% of community college students reporting that they are housing insecure and nearly 1 in 4 students reporting they have experienced homelessness during their school year.
Hearing our student partners—who have increasingly vocalized the need to prioritize the growing student housing crisis—Public Advocates convened the CASH coalition, made up of higher education partners, community groups and student-led advocacy organizations, in March 2023 to explore and advocate for solutions.
Using this initial year to ground the coalition, we’ve formed a student power-building workgroup with our student partners to ensure students are an active part of the advocacy, both in sharing the challenges they face when trying to meet their housing needs and understanding current policy in order to partner on potential solutions. We are also researching and learning about what is currently being done (or not being done) to provide students with affordable housing and, at the same time, we are trying to ensure that the state continues to make addressing affordable student housing a priority.
Q: When SB 169 (2021) was signed into law in California, it established the Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program. What has progress looked like so far for California’s college students? Any notable successes?
A: This is the first time that the state has invested in building student housing–so, it’s a big deal. Under the program, the state made a commitment to grant $2.2 billion over three years; half of which was earmarked for community college housing projects. Perhaps the most significant piece of this program is that the rental rates for this housing are required to be affordable and give priority housing to low-income students. One of our partners in the coalition, CA Competes, did a great analysis of the program, and there are definitely some notable data points emerging.
So far, the state has awarded grants for 35 student housing projects, including four intersegmental projects which are key for supporting and creating stability for community college transfer students. When all the projects are completed, there will be just over 11,200 additional beds, with about 4,380 beds for community college students. This would nearly triple the number of beds available to community college students.
While we certainly applaud the focus on community college students (who report the highest rate of housing insecurity and homelessness), affordability and low-income students, the projects selected still don’t quite serve the population of students who we know, from the data, are struggling the most with housing. For example, the California Student Aid Commission did a student basic needs survey in 2018 and what they found was that students struggling with housing insecurity were most likely to be Black or Latinx, female, over the age of 22 and/or have dependents. The updated 2023 survey made the same finding and also noted that students in community college or a private institution were also more likely to struggle with housing. However, only three of the 35 selected housing projects so far specifically mention providing housing or services for student parents. Only one project mentioned providing specific services or housing options designed for older students. There are also significant disparities in the geographic distribution of the projects, with urban areas being awarded a greater percentage of project grants– which raises questions about whether the needs of students in non-urban/rural areas will also be addressed.
In 2023, the tightening state budget led to some changes to the financing of the projects that created uncertainty about the ability of many of the awarded community college projects to move forward. But the state is reportedly working on a solution, and I’m still hearing a lot of cautious optimism and excitement from both administrators and students about being able to provide this resource to students.
In terms of successes, it’s still very early and most projects have not broken ground, but we are seeing some projects, like at Santa Rosa Junior College, start housing students. These projects, however, were already far along in their process when they received their grant.
And there’s clear evidence that—when done right—investing in affordable student housing is a powerful ROI for both students and the state. Programs like The Village at Cerritos Community College, which existed prior to the Housing Grant Program, have shown that affordable housing with supportive services results in students completing their academic goals at a higher rate than the general student population.
While the significant investment in the Housing Grant Program is a much needed step in the right direction, 11,200 beds is a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need. Addressing this crisis will require additional housing solutions beyond those provided by campuses; eventually we will need to engage city and county officials who make local housing decisions at a much larger scale. This is why having a broad coalition of advocates dedicated to this issue is so important; we need to continue the momentum because we know what a difference access to affordable housing can make in the lives of low-income, BIPOC college students.
Q: What do you believe to be the biggest barriers to establishing affordable housing for college students in California? How can higher education equity champions support efforts to address housing insecurity among California’s student populations?
A: There are three significant barriers to addressing affordable housing for college students:
First, there’s a critical need to educate policy makers and the public about the needs of the modern college student. I think many folks would be surprised to know that the average age of a California community college student is 29; that a majority of community college students and CSU students are students of color; that over half of community college students and almost half of CSU students receive need-based financial aid; and 60% of community college students report being housing insecure.
Traditional ideas about who is a college student and what college students deserve in terms of our support and empathy often means that students are being left out of the larger conversation on the housing crisis and the housing-needs planning that all communities are required to do– even though their presence obviously has a significant impact on the community. Higher education equity advocates can play a key role here in challenging these assumptions and seeding a new narrative, when pushing for policy reform.
Second, policy makers need to be intentional and focused on the students who need the most support. As I mentioned before, when CSAC did the same survey in 2018 the data clearly identified which students were struggling most with accessing affordable housing; those same students continue to be the most impacted five years later. What’s more, this same survey found that 35% of students reported experiencing housing insecurity in 2018; today it’s increased to 53%. The depth of the problem has grown. We know who is most impacted, but the policy solutions don’t always line up with the data. Higher ed equity advocates need to work with policy makers to ensure that future investments in affordable student housing and policy solutions are targeted towards the students most likely to experience housing insecurity and homelessness.
Finally, there has to be the willingness on behalf of policy makers, college and university administrators, higher education and housing justice advocates and the communities where students live to address affordable student housing. As we go into yet another tight budget year, the state will have to make tough decisions about where to invest resources. Investing in policies that will support students struggling with meeting their basic needs, such as increasing need-based aid and affordable student housing, ought to be a priority for the state. Likewise, local communities should be thinking about the low-income and homeless students in their communities and working with the college or university to create policy solutions.