BERKELEY, Calif. - College students squeezed by a massive housing shortage and surging rents are paying too much for moldy apartments, commuting long distances or sleeping in their cars to get an education — and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
For some colleges, the housing crunch was related to the pandemic, which muddied projections for who might want on-campus dorms when classes resumed in person last fall. But the lack of housing both on-campus and off has been a longstanding problem at other schools, including many in California, where homeowners and communities have sued to curb new student housing construction.
Nationally, 43% of students at four-year universities 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 at Temple University. Students reported being unable to pay their rent or mortgage, living in overcrowded units, or moving in with others due to financial difficulties.
For the first time since it began tracking basic needs 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 last year.
"This is a function of rents rising, the inability of communities and institutions to build enough housing for students and other costs of college going up that create a perfect storm for students," said Mark Huelsman, the center’s director of policy and advocacy.
Terrell Thompson, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, slept in his car for nearly two weeks at the start of the school year last fall, unable to find an apartment in his price range. The university has limited dorms and competition is fierce for nearby off-campus units, which can start at $1,600 for a 300-square-foot (28-square-meter) studio.
"Academically it was hard, because I’m worried about finding housing and I’m worried about my clothes and I’m worried about getting my car broken into all the time," said the 19-year-old Thompson, who now lives in an apartment he found last September. "I was anxious 24/7."
Nationally, rents have increased 17% since March 2020, said Chris Salviati, senior economist with Apartment List, but the increase has been higher in some popular college towns. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, saw a 24% jump in rents and Tempe, Arizona, saw a 31% hike.
In some cases, the rental increases have been exacerbated by a lack of on-campus housing,
Last fall, the demand for on-campus housing was so high that the University of Tampa offered incoming freshmen a break on tuition if they deferred until fall 2022. Rent in the Florida city has skyrocketed nearly 30% from a year ago, according to Apartment List.
Rent in Knoxville has soared 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 needs to prioritize housing for a larger freshman class.
Even two-year community colleges, which have not traditionally provided dorms, are rethinking student needs as the cost of housing rises.
Last October, Long Beach City College outside of Los Angeles launched a pilot program to provide up to 15 homeless students space in an enclosed parking garage.
They sleep in their cars and have access to bathrooms and showers, electrical outlets and internet while they work with counselors to find permanent housing. Uduak-Joe Ntuk, president of the college’s Board of Trustees, hesitated when asked if the program will be renewed.
"I want to say no, but I think we will," he said. "We’re going to have new students come fall semester this year that are going to be in a similar situation, and for us to do nothing is untenable."
UC Berkeley and other UC campuses are fighting homeowners who oppose campus expansion plans, even as the schools accept more students.
Most students have no idea of the housing situation when they choose to attend 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 science major is excited to move out of the dorms and into a two-bedroom apartment where she and three friends are taking over the lease. The unit is older but a bargain at $3,000 a month, she said. The housemates were prepared to pay up to $5,200 for a safe place close to campus.
"You don’t honestly know the severity of the situation before you’re in it," she said, adding that landlords hold all the cards. "They know that whatever price they charge, we’ll inevitably have to pay it because we don’t really have a choice except maybe to live out of our cars."