In summary

Two California community colleges built housing in the last couple of years, with very different approaches. The projects give a peek at the future of student housing as the state rolls out $500 million in grants to build or expand dorms and apartments on a dozen community college campuses.

When Vivian McFarland decided to enroll in Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa, the college’s on-campus housing complex, The Harbour, was a major factor. 

Living on campus makes for an easier commute to class, said the graphic design major. And it’s been easier to make friends, by participating in dorm events like a recent ping-pong tournament.

 “It’s actually a pretty nice environment with a lot of my peers, and just people the same age, going to the same classes,” McFarland said.

Busy dorms and student apartment complexes are hubs of campus life at four-year colleges throughout the state. Soon, residential campus life will be a reality at a growing number of California community college campuses as well. The state plans to spend $2.2 billion on student housing over three years, and a dozen community colleges have already been awarded construction grants totaling more than $500 million to build new dorms or expand existing ones. 

The Harbour and another recently constructed student housing project at Imperial Valley College in El Centro offer a look into the future of student housing at the community college level. While the addition of affordable housing for these students can ease financial tension and provide a sense of community, colleges also must contend with concerns about safety, management accountability, and the need for other on-site services.

Twelve of the state’s community colleges already provide housing; most are in rural areas, and built dorms in the 1960s to serve students who couldn’t easily commute to class. But the new wave of campus housing projects is coming to urban and rural campuses alike, aiming to meet a different challenge: the skyrocketing cost of housing in California that is putting a squeeze on students’ wallets

And demand for student housing at community colleges is only likely to grow: Another 70 colleges have been awarded smaller state grants to plan new projects, said California Community Colleges spokesperson Melissa Villarin.

Housing is a “critical need” for community college students, said Villarin, noting that a 2019 survey of community college students’ basic needs revealed that 60% of students in the prior year were housing insecure, and 19% were homeless.

“These needs, when unmet, easily and often lead to student crises and, without intervention, frequently force students to put their educational journeys on hold,” said Villarin.

A sense of community, but with challenges

At Orange Coast College, The Harbour offers students furnished apartments with monthly rents ranging from $1,099 per person for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit, with two students per room, to $2,249 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom single occupancy unit. (Rates include utilities and amenities such as a business center, rooftop lounges and a community game room.) Touted by its developer as the first community college housing in Southern California, it opened in 2020 and is a public-private partnership, which means a private company, the Scion Group, markets, leases and operates the building.

The Harbour at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa seen from the campus community garden on Jan. 27, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
The Harbour, a student housing complex at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, seen from the campus community garden on Jan. 27, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

The apartments opened at the height of the pandemic and at first were less than half occupied; the college offered some of the units to non-students. But occupancy grew as students returned to in-person learning and now stands at 98%, said Jamie Kammerman, Orange Coast College’s director of housing and residential education.

“We definitely have a very strong demand, and the demand exists across a number of students’ backgrounds,” Kammerman said. “We have local students within our district who are just seeking that residential on-campus experience at the community college (level).” 

While some residents, like McFarland, consider the rents at The Harbour affordable when considering the state’s high cost of living, others disagreed.

“I live in a two-bedroom double occupancy, and it seems like the rent is pretty high considering the fact that I have three roommates, and one of them is in my room,” said Aisling Archdeacon, a first-year biology major. “Outside of The Harbour, I feel like I might be paying half the rent I am here.”

At $1,099 per person, the total rent on the two-bedroom Archdeacon shares with her roommates is more than $4,000. By comparison, the average rent for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment within one square mile of the campus is $2,980 per month, according to Zillow. 

Kammerman said the college conducts annual price assessments to ensure that units rent at or below market rates, and about 10% of residents receive college stipends of $400-600 per month to help with the expense.

Residents who spoke with the CalMatters College Journalism Network said they most appreciated the sense of community that came with living on campus. 

“It’s easy to make friends, and it’s just been really good for me. I feel like I’m learning a lot of independence living on my own,” said Archdeacon. “I feel like it’s making OCC feel more like an actual university rather than a community college.”

The availability of on-campus housing has also been a good recruiting tool for the college, Kammerman said, especially when it comes to luring out-of-state athletes. And she sees students becoming more involved with campus life and activities.

“I think, just this semester, we’re really starting to see and feel the difference that a residential community has on our college,” Kammerman said.

But the college has also dealt with safety issues at the building, where two students died of suspected drug overdoses in 2021, according to OCC’s student news publication, Coast Report. More than a quarter of all campus safety incidents at OCC during the last few months of 2020 occurred at the Harbour, following its opening in late September, Coast Report disclosed last year.

Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa on Jan. 27, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa on Jan. 27, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

Jubilee Adams, a former Harbour resident and Orange Coast student, said she didn’t feel safe in the building and was often approached by older male residents who made her uncomfortable.

“You hear about all the stuff that happens, like at night when people would have their cars broken into, or people would try to pick up girls,” she said. “It was just freaky.”

OCC’s Kammerman said that the Harbour employs resident advisors who are available 24/7 to escort residents or respond to any incidents of concern or safety, as well as an overnight security officer.

Mold in apartment bathrooms has also been an ongoing issue in the building, with several students reporting resulting illnesses. Archdeacon, who has lived at The Harbour since August, said that both of her roommates moved out due to respiratory issues requiring emergency room visits, which they attributed to the mold, although she herself has not suffered from any illness.

Jay Pearlman, a spokesman for The Scion Group, said in an email that Harbour management had identified high humidity and surface condensation in several apartments in late August and early September 2022 and “treated any apartment that needed it,” relocating residents to hotels and other units in the meantime. Apartments are now being inspected for mold regularly, he said. 

A haven for formerly homeless students

The Legislature has barred public-private partnerships such as the Harbour from receiving the state’s new student housing funds, so future projects may look more like Lotus Living, a tiny home village built by Imperial Valley College — in California’s southeastern corner — to house formerly homeless and housing-insecure students. 

The college partnered with the City of El Centro and the Imperial Valley College Foundation to build the 26 micro-houses on land owned by the city, located less than five miles from the community college campus, near a Starbucks and a shopping center. 

Jorge Chavez sits in his room at Lotus Living in El Centro on Jan. 22, 2023. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters
Jorge Chavez sits in his room at Lotus Living in El Centro on Jan. 22, 2023. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters

When resident Emily Garcia showed up for orientation, she said, the college’s housing director told the gathered students that Lotus Living was not just a home, but a community. “We are your village,” he told them. 

In response, “a lot of us started crying,” Garcia said. Each tiny home is 170 square feet and includes a kitchen, bathroom, bed, desk, closet, patio, and washer and dryer. The rent: $200 per month, including utilities.

Completed in 2021 with funds from Project Homekey, a state initiative to house homeless people during the pandemic, the cottages surround a common lawn area — the site of community events such as movie nights and a spot for residents to connect with their neighbors. Last Thanksgiving Day, a dinner was held in the Lotus Living parking lot.

Garcia called the group events “almost therapeutic.” While she had worried that the housing situation would be very institutionalized, she said, “you’re treated like a human, you’re not treated inhumane.” And her home had everything she needed, down to the cooking utensils. 

Garcia was homeless before she moved into her tiny home, and believes that other colleges should pursue programs to house students struggling with housing insecurity, because the opportunity would lead to fewer students dropping out.

“When you have stable housing,” she said, “you can focus more on school.” 

Demand for the tiny homes has been fierce, with more than 250 qualified students on the waiting list as of the beginning of January. To live at Lotus Living, students must attend monthly workshops on topics such as applying for jobs, budgeting, mental health and communication skills. Residents must enroll in at least 12 units each semester with at least a 2.0 grade point average, and assist with monthly food distributions to fulfill their community service requirement. There are also monthly room checks and one-on-one meetings with staff from the college’s student equity department.

Lotus Living, a community of twenty six tiny homes, in El Centro on Jan. 22, 2023. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters
Lotus Living, a community of 26 tiny homes for Imperial Valley College students, in El Centro on Jan. 22, 2023. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters

Nursing major Jorge Chavez Jr. struggled to find stable housing before moving into a Lotus Living tiny home two years ago. Having access to basic amenities like a washer and dryer, and a bus stop right outside Lotus Living’s gates, has saved him time that he can use to study, he said.

“I have no words to explain the difference it’s made in my life,” Chavez said. 

More community college dorms coming soon

Other community colleges receiving state money to build student housing are also tailoring their projects to students with the most need. Compton College plans to build a four-story, 250-bed facility to house homeless and low-income students, with construction slated to start in 2024. Preliminary plans call for two buildings containing double rooms, suites and studio apartments arranged around a central courtyard with a playground and landscaping.

Providing housing will help the college better serve foster youth, veterans, and formerly incarcerated students, said president Keith Curry.

“We consider campus housing critical to student success, offering a way for Compton College students to focus on education and career goals in a safe environment that cultivates their well-being,” he said.

In hopes of making the new dorms affordable for students, the state housing program funding them requires annual rent not to exceed 15% of a county’s median wage for a single person. Facing a projected budget deficit this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed delaying $250 million of the $750 million scheduled to be spent on the program this year to 2024 — but the remainder would still be doled out to colleges.

Meanwhile, some community colleges are moving ahead with long-planned projects. Santa Rosa Junior College plans to house more than 350 students in new dorms and apartments beginning in fall 2023. Prices will range from $990 per month for a shared double in the residence hall to $1,750 per month for a single room in a furnished, six-person apartment with living room and kitchenette. 

The campus will increase staffing to support a 24/7 student presence, said interim vice president of student services Robert Ethington. He said he hoped adding on-campus housing would ease the burden of students who work multiple jobs while enrolled in the college, located in Northern California’s pricey wine country.

“It’s a big removal of a barrier,” he said.

Madison is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. Bent is a contributor to the network. Network editor Felicia Mello and program manager Matthew Reagan contributed reporting. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Andrea Madison is a student at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA, currently working towards finishing her Associate Degree for Transfer. She plans to apply to St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA...