By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – The issue of homelessness is a huge challenge, not only in our community but also among university students. In his latest column, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May discusses in brief the homeless problem.
The Chancellor cites the statistic of 173,800 unhoused people in California and writes, “We see the effects of this crisis around Davis, including tent encampments and people living in vehicles. Solving this problem is especially complex, with sharp increases in the costs of living, an epidemic of opioid abuse, availability of mental health services and other factors contributing to the rising state of homelessness.”
The Chancellor notes that the university “is driven to be part of the solution and provide community support. Our scholars are researching the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the unhoused, and the UC Davis Center for Poverty & Inequality Research is a hub for studying the complex dynamics that surround this issue and broader topics of inequity as well.”
While the overall problem of homelessness is certainly a huge problem in need of solutions, in my view the Chancellor misses a critical opportunity to drill into an area where he has a lot more control—student homelessness.
Toward the end of his column, the Chancellor writes: “I am committed to addressing the basic needs of students, especially when it comes to housing. A recent survey found that nearly 7 percent of those who responded were homeless for a period of time. It also revealed that almost 18 percent of respondents experienced either homelessness or another form of housing insecurity.
“Our Student Emergency Relief Aid program gives short-term funds to students who are facing financial emergencies,” he explains. “The university offers emergency and short-term housing for students who are homeless or in imminent danger of becoming homeless. In the meantime, the Affordable Student Housing Task Force that I established in 2018 continues to gather data, identify funding and make recommendations to address housing insecurity.”
While offering short-term and emergency housing for students is vital, it is not a replacement for a long-term solution to the problem.
What is needed instead is permanent affordable housing options for students that are housing insecure.
In 2021 an Assembly Budget Committee found that “California’s housing crisis threatens the state’s higher education goals of increasing access and improving affordability.” It noted, “Campus housing programs, which suffered losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, are struggling to fund new construction or renovation projects that that keep student costs down and address local government and neighborhood concerns.”
That analysis found that the average yearly cost of housing ranged from $14,000 to $17,000, often surpassing the cost of tuition for students who are California residents.
Causes include the inability to keep up with rise in enrollment, high demand for housing and local homeowners’ hostility to hew housing projects, as well as a scarcity of space to build new housing.
According to a 2021 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, 5% of UC students are currently experiencing homelessness. That number rises to 16% when those living in hotels or transitional housing are included.
“California’s failure to build student housing is harming so many California college students – pushing them into homelessness and even depriving them of a college education entirely,” said State Senator Scott Wiener.
The Senator added, “Students – who are simply trying to go to school and learn – should not be forced to live in their cars because colleges can’t provide enough housing for them. It is unacceptable for NIMBY lawsuits to strip students of their right to a quality education by blocking housing and effectively forcing schools to reduce enrollment. Public colleges and universities are California’s economic engines and a key path to the middle class for young people. Yet, they are struggling to accommodate students and faculty, and we need to make it easier for them to build the housing they so badly need on their campuses.”
The UC system, for example, received record amounts of applications in 2021 and has expanded enrollment as demand has increased.
“The growth in admissions, combined with decades of limited housing development, has left campuses without the necessary shelter for their students or staff,” it continued. Schools have revoked housing guarantees, and housing waitlists continue to grow.
In the fall of 2021 alone, 13 CSU campuses reported having 8,700 students on waitlists for housing, while 8 UC campuses reported 7,500 students—a combined total of over 16,000 students unable to gain access to housing through the university they attend.
Senator Wiener believes that, while half the campuses have added housing since 2015, “the rate at which these projects are ready to be inhabited has not matched the rise in admissions. One issue facing potential housing projects for students and faculty is the prevalence of CEQA appeals and lawsuits.”
While UC Davis has belatedly expanded on-campus housing capacity, they certainly have an ability to address student homelessness and housing insecurity.
According to the LAO report from 2021, UC Davis has increased housing capacity by nearly 5000 beds since 2015, second only to UC San Diego which increased theirs by just over 5000 beds.
But even though housing capacity has slightly outpaced enrollment growth since 2015, there are still significant waitlists at both UC and CSU campuses.
In our view, the UC waitlists are entirely in the capacity of Chancellor May to address and should be the focus of their efforts to combat homelessness.