California’s Students Desperately Need Housing. College Towns Aren’t Building It.

California’s Students Desperately Need Housing. College Towns Aren’t Building It.

In the coming weeks, nearly a million Californians will be returning to college campuses across the Golden State as in-person instruction resumes within the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. Many students, faculty, and staff will be returning to college towns and neighborhoods for the first time since Spring 2020, when both systems went remote in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon their return, they are likely to find an even worse housing crisis than they left behind.

As reported by KCRW, the scramble back to campus has only deepened the housing crunch in university towns like Isla Vista, which neighbors the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Down the coast in Los Angeles, Westwood—home to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)—remains one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the state, while Berkeley—which hosts the UC system’s flagship campus—is unlikely to lose its status as one of the priciest college towns in America.

In the face of an acute housing shortage and skyrocketing rents, many California students have taken extreme measures, such as living in cars, undertaking two-hour-plus “supercommutes,” or sleeping on couches—all practices sure to stunt academic performance. By one estimate, one in five California Community College students, one in 10 CSU students, and one in 20 UC students are homeless. In the face of overwhelming housing affordability pressures, many students have opted to simply drop out of school.

Much of the blame has rightly been laid at the feet of California’s various universities, which haven’t built nearly enough on-campus housing over the past few decades, an obligation that at least a few schools are finally taking seriously. Others have simply called on California universities to reduce enrollment, a move that would lock the next generation of Californians out of higher education altogether. A group of Berkeley NIMBYs recently used California’s infamous environmental review law (CEQA) to block an increase in enrollment at UC Berkeley.

Largely undiscussed has been the simple fact that many of these college towns and neighborhoods allow very little housing to be built, despite high and rising rents. Take Santa Cruz, home to UC Santa Cruz: over the past decade, the city built virtually no new housing. Indeed, in five of the past 10 years, the city didn’t permit a single apartment to be built, according to the US Census Building Permits Survey. Meanwhile, down in Orange County, Fullerton—home of CSU Fullerton, the largest campus in the CSU system—is permitting new housing at some of the lowest per capita rates in the nation. It’s hard to keep housing affordable when you don’t allow any of it to be built.

This underproduction is in turn largely a function of onerous local zoning regulations. Here in Los Angeles, schools like UCLA and CSU Northridge are ringed by single-family zoning districts, which make apartments illegal to build. Up the coast at San Jose State University—which earns the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of student homelessness in the state—heights are strictly capped and parking is mandatory, making new housing construction all but impossible. Even at the urban University of San Francisco, apartments are outright banned on many blocks surrounding campus, forcing students to undertake hellish commutes from across the Bay.

In decades past, access to a world-class education drew millions of Americans into California and laid the groundwork for a thriving middle class. Yet today, California’s beleaguered youth are decamping for universities in Arizona and Nevada at record rates, another tragic symptom of the great exodus to the desert underway across the state. Will we double down on NIMBYism that is tearing apart our state, pulling up the ladder of opportunity for future Californians? Or will we build the housing that students, faculty, and staff desperately need? The future of the California Dream could depend on how we answer this question.

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