Zarai Saldana expected to start her final year at UC Merced from a brand new apartment where she had already signed a lease. Instead, the transfer student spent the first two weeks of the school year moving from hotel to hotel.
Construction delays hampered the opening of Merced Station, the private student housing complex where she had planned to live, leaving more than 500 of the University of California at Merced’s 9,000-plus students without housing.
In hotel rooms paid for by the university, Saldana and a roommate took turns studying or dining at one desk. With no kitchen, she couldn’t prepare food. Because the hotels had to make room for non-student guests who already had reservations, she said, the university assigned her to three different hotels in the span of 11 days. The effect of constant movement on her studies.
“I didn’t start as well as I had hoped,” she said. “I’m starting to fall behind.”
Saldana eventually found a room to rent the campus. But her experience mirrors that of thousands of students across the UC system who were excited to get back to campus life this fall after a year of online learning during the pandemic and found themselves scrambling to find housing. Unable to secure dorm rooms or afford expensive off-campus apartments, some ended up in funky lodgings – local hotel rooms.
At least four campuses offered a hotel option, providing temporary relief to hundreds of students. But the financial support that came with them varied from one campus to another. And for many students, finding permanent and affordable housing remains elusive, even as the fall semester approaches.
Affordable housing has long been a problem for California’s public universities. In 2020, 16% of UCSD students were living in hotels, transitional housing or outdoor locations because they did not have permanent housing, according to a report from the state’s Office of Legislative Analyst. Although the UC system has added about 20,000 additional beds across its 10 campuses since the 2015-16 academic year, more than 7,500 students are still on waiting lists for on-campus housing during the fall of 2021, LAO found.
The pandemic has exacerbated the UCSD housing crisis. Officials said uncertainty over whether education will be in-person or online has created a last-minute rush for students applying for housing after those decisions were made. To keep universities COVID safe, some have designated quarantine beds for students who have been infected and have reduced density in dorms, meaning fewer beds are available. And in coastal cities like Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, students have found themselves facing housing markets transformed by the pandemic. Besides camping in hotels, some have resorted to other extreme measures to counter the rising cost of living, including couch rides and long-distance commuting.
University of California at Merced students who used to live in hotels have since moved into apartments or on-campus residences, the university’s vice president for student affairs, Charles Ness, said. But the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of California at San Diego, and the University of California at Santa Cruz have also turned to hotels to house students.
On November 16, 280 UCSD students were staying at 10 different hotels contracted by the university, Mario Muñoz, associate director of Residential and Community Living, said during a November 16 town hall meeting. That’s down from about 350 earlier this quarter after some students were able to secure housing elsewhere.
University officials said students in hotels pay $26 a day, the equivalent of double occupancy space in university-owned apartments, and the school covers the remaining $175 a day.
Sarah Hamidi, a fifth-year student, said she began looking for accommodation in June, after the university announced that she would be returning to in-person teaching. But she was put on a waiting list and told that the residence halls and apartments were already full. She was unable to find housing in the neighboring communities of Isla Vista and Goleta.
One week before classes began, Hamidi received an email from the university offering a room at the Ramada by Wyndham, and made what she saw as her only option. She drives to campus, cooks some of her meals in a quick pot and orders the rest at DoorDash.
The housing struggle came on top of an already frustrating end to her college experience. She recently learned that she cannot finish her chosen major due to a drop in grade in one class. She said that when she signed the housing contract, she cried.
“This is my last year at UCSF,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this was my situation.”
Madeleine Castro, a senior at the University of California, San Francisco, pays $750 out of pocket a month for a room in Pacifica Suites. She has her own space with a king-size bed, mini fridge, microwave, and desk, but she says she finds herself feeling lonely.
“The whole point of coming to college is to have a roommate and a fun experience, right?” Castro said.
Initially, the students faced the December deadline to either find accommodation elsewhere or pay the hotel price themselves. Castro said she was having trouble saving for a deposit, and that searching for a place in the Santa Barbara housing market made her “very nervous.”
The students’ plight at the hotels became a rallying point for Food Not Bombs, a local mutual aid group, which organized a rally on November 5 calling for the university to extend hotel contracts. Hundreds of students attended, prompted by a backlash against a campus housing proposal dubbed “Dormzilla” in press reports and social media. The 4,500-bed Munger Hall building has been criticized for its design, which includes windowless bedrooms.
Muñoz, at the city hall on November 16, said the university plans to extend hotel contracts into the winter quarter for those who need them.
“At this point, we are looking to prioritize moving students who are in hotels to on-campus housing. Our goal is that anyone who is currently in a hotel will be offered an offer of either on-campus housing or an extended hotel contract through the winter quarter,” Muñoz said.
While the University of California at Santa Barbara subsidizes the cost of hotel rooms for students, and UC Merced has paid the entire bill plus shuttle service and grocery store cards, students who resort to hotel accommodation at UC San Diego must pay their own way.
Four Marriott hotels near La Jolla offer discount rates to UCSD students for longer stays, and a university spokesperson estimated that there were about 20 students staying there.
For example, students can book a room at Residence Inn San Diego Del Mar for $169 per night. But even that discounted rate comes to about $5,000 per month. Students who stay 90 days or more can pay up to $125 per night at this hotel, or $119 at the hotel chain’s La Jolla location. UCSF spokeswoman Leslie Cibuca said the university does not pay hotel bills for students, but they can apply for a one-time stipend to cover part of the cost through the school’s Basic Needs Center.
Keda Bradley, a sophomore at the University of California, San Francisco, said that while hotels may be adequate for amenities, they are not a viable option for low-income students and those without financial support from their families.
“It’s like putting a bandage on a bullet wound,” Bradley said. Instead, she and another student government participant at the University of California, San Francisco, drafted a proposal to officials calling for them to provide more emergency housing on campus and allow sofa surfing in the dorms.
UC Santa Cruz also uses 60 rooms at the local Best Western to house graduate students.
The $2,700 monthly rate includes a continental breakfast. Students pay for traditional on-campus student housing – $1,247 per month – while the rest is subsidized by the university. Like other students staying in hotels, graduate students do not find a place to cook meals.
The hotel is a good option for students who can’t find housing currently, but it’s not a long-term solution, said Rogina Bozorgnia, a senior student at the University of California, and vice president of external affairs for the Student Union Association.
“It is not a really sustainable way to deal with the housing crisis,” Pozornia said. “It’s a short-term solution to a problem that we haven’t addressed in a long-term fashion.”
University of California Student Association President Josh Lewis said this year’s student housing crisis is unprecedented. Lewis said students have left communities during the pandemic, and landlords have taken on new tenants.
“These angel [are] We are now trying a predatory approach to recovering from COVID by dramatically increasing rent as rent protection measures expire in some of our campus cities.”
California lawmakers are looking for solutions. They have budgeted $500 million for student housing in this year’s state budget — a number experts say is small compared to the need.
An association subcommittee on education funding recently held a hearing to discuss how the state could increase support for California’s public colleges and universities to build affordable student housing. Society member Kevin McCarty (De Sacramento), the chair of the subcommittee, said most college officials told him they wanted to create more housing on campus because it’s a low-risk job offer with a captive market: students.
“If you build it, they will literally come, because they are there anyway,” McCarty said.
But campus concerns about taking on too much debt, environmental regulations, and societal opposition have all slowed the pace of construction. University of California officials have called on lawmakers to create a permanent, zero percent interest revolving loan fund from which colleges can borrow.
Meanwhile, Hamidi, a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, remains uncertain about her plans for the rest of the school year. I have applied for university housing for the winter quarter. She said if she doesn’t get a contract, she will continue to stay in a hotel.
For Castro, the winter quarter looks more promising. She recently secured a place in the university’s off-campus apartments, after putting it on the priority list. But she realizes that many of her fellow students are still homeless.
“I feel good now, but not everyone feels that,” she said.
Loyola and Ananthavel are fellows of the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. Marinette Federes contributed reporting. The College Futures Foundation supports this story and other higher education coverage.