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As San Diego’s housing crisis rages on, local community colleges are stepping into housing for the first time, as state lawmakers have created funding opportunities for those efforts.
In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 169 into law, which allocates $2 billion over three years to fund the planning and construction of affordable housing on college campuses, with $750 million available this year and next. Fifty percent of that funding will go to community colleges.
But the state’s push doesn’t stop there. One bill in the works would provide more capital for public colleges to build affordable housing and another would let schools tap into federal and state affordable housing credits and bond dollars to build housing for community college district employees — something that was previously limited to K-12 teachers.
The developments are welcome news to local officials. Few California community colleges offer housing and none in San Diego County do, despite community colleges being home to disproportionately more lower-income students than public four-year universities.
Community college students also tend to be older and more likely to experience housing insecurity. Surveys indicate that 59 percent of San Diego Community College District students have struggled with housing insecurity and 18 percent have experienced homelessness.
Schools in every district in the county have received state funding – from $155,000 to $812,000 – but the grants are limited to planning for housing. They’ll need much larger grants to build anything. Local officials each said they intend to seek money to build housing, too.
Providing new housing isn’t cheap, and community college officials say they could look beyond SB 169 for funding, whether by striking partnerships with developers, working with housing agencies, looking for other grant opportunities, or even pushing their own bond measures.
But the community college districts can only use the state funds for new housing, either by building it or by converting other properties, like commercial spaces. Converting hotels into housing, however, is not allowed by the law. Students’ rent to live in the new homes would be capped at 30 percent of the median income of the area.
Here’s where efforts at each community college stand.
Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District
Both Grossmont College and Cuyamaca College were approved for matching $155,000 SB 169 grants. The two East County colleges serve around 24,000 students.
The schools haven’t considered building housing on their campuses in recent history, and while they know there’s a need, it’s not entirely clear how much or what kind. That’s why the district will be using the grants to assess the need. But according to district information, about 55 percent of students who attend Grossmont College, and 58 percent of those who attend Cuyamaca College are classified as low-income.
Though the process of finding the right place for housing is still in its preliminary stages, the college has identified potential locations for housing at each of its campuses.
They also haven’t ruled out the possibility of building a facility off campus or purchasing and retooling a building that’s not currently in use. Regardless of the placement, it’s likely the district will partner with a private entity to manage the facilities.
According to a Fall 2021 survey, nearly 1,500 students at MiraCosta College, which serves around 10,000 students in North County, had experienced housing insecurity. Tim Flood, MiraCosta’s vice president of administrative services, said the $155,000 grant the college received through SB 169 would be used to perform feasibility studies and to determine the financial model of the housing and what sorts of housing options and services would fit the needs of its students.
The money it received was significantly less than the $250,000 officials had estimated it needed to perform the studies, but the district footed the rest of the bill to hire a consulting firm.
In addition to the funding question, Flood said location will be a key challenge. They’ve already determined they don’t have room on campus to build housing, so officials are looking for offsite locations that would be suitable for students and where they can provide transportation to and from campus. They’ve also determined they will most likely pursue a public-private partnership to fund and maintain the housing.
According to a sample the college took, the average price of a one-bedroom in Oceanside was around $2,200 a month. Given the rent restrictions on potential new units, Flood estimates students could save almost $15,000 annually.
“It could allow more students to be able to attend full time and get to their educational goals much sooner,” said Flood.
Palomar College, which serves around 21,000 students, counts itself lucky to have land both on its San Marcos and Fallbrook campuses.
The college received an $821,000 planning grant through SB 169, the second largest planning grant distributed to a community college in the state and plans to use the funds to conduct environmental impact studies and determine which types of housing would function on different areas of its campuses.
Palomar College isn’t new to the concept of building housing for their students. It has been looking into the possibility since 2019.
Rivera-Lacey said Palomar is open to pursuing a public-private partnership to fund and manage construction but wants to be careful about who exactly they partner with, saying she’d want them to share Palomar’s commitment to centering the well-being of the students as opposed to focusing solely on profits.
Regardless of the hurdles to getting there, Rivera-Lacey said the prospect of community college housing is an “absolute game changer.”
“If we can build housing for some of the most vulnerable populations, the very populations that community college and are here to serve, it’s a win-win,” Rivera-Lacey said.
San Diego Community College District
Carlos Cortez, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, whose four colleges serve around 100,00 students, has long preached the gospel of housing on community college campuses. Cortez has expressed optimism about the district’s ability to build as many as 10,000 units on its 10 campuses because of the ample land it owns. But the key, he said, will be bringing in a myriad of local, state, federal and private funding sources.
“How many other entities in San Diego have 10 prime properties? And that’s just on our campuses, we also own other properties,” Cortez said in an interview with Voice of San Diego. “We’re sitting on oil, basically, and we’re just waiting for folks to bring the wells.”
The district has already received a pair of $30,00 grants from nonprofits the San Diego Foundation and Lucky Duck Foundation, as well as a $100,000 grant from the local chapter of Funders Together to End Homelessness to create a comprehensive districtwide housing plan. They’ve used these funds to hire a consultant group that can help identify the potential sources of funding needed to make that housing a reality.
San Diego City College has also taken individual action. The college hopes to build student and employee housing at the location of its former child development center at 16th and B Streets downtown. It applied simultaneously for construction and planning grants via SB 169 but was only awarded a planning grant of $344,000.
That money will not cover the entirety of the planning process, which John Parker, City’s vice president of administrative services, estimated to be around $11 million once architectural design, permitting and feasibility studies are included, but the college has used it to enter into a contract with local firm SGPA to identify additional potential funding sources and high-level conceptual designs.
The total cost of the proposed project, which would consist of a 15-story tower with over 600 beds geared toward low-income students, single parents, foster youth, justice impacted students and veterans may be as high as $130 million. But, Parker said, they’d like to double that and build two towers that would include administrative offices and potential market-rate housing.
Given that SB 169 funds available to community colleges per period top out at around $360 million, the college is unlikely to receive a construction grant that will pay for the project in its entirety. So, like the district, college officials are open to a variety of funding sources including additional grants, public-private partnerships or a bond measure.
Southwestern College, which serves around 27,00 students yearly, has been contemplating building student housing since at least 2018, and even included the need for it in the facility’s master plan released that year. The college was awarded a $618,000 planning grant via SB 169 to perform feasibility studies at five separate sites it’s identified as potential locations for student housing.
The sites include college-owned and city-owned property from throughout South County with options both on and off campus. Early district estimates of the cost to construct housing on each of the sites range from nearly $43 million to nearly $100 million. They hope the projects combined could create between 1,500 and 2,000 new units for students.
They aim to include wraparound services in the facilities like support centers and potentially multi-use conference rooms and cafes that could bring in additional dollars. As part of Southwestern’s child development curriculum, which prepares students to be licensed daycare providers or transfer to four-year institutions to further pursue a degree, students have the option to work at the Chula Vista campus’ daycare center and receive practicum hours. Kelly Hall, Southwestern’s vice president for business and financial affairs, hopes to replicate that in childcare centers at future student housing facilities.
Hall said such services could allow students who are most vulnerable to housing insecurity and experience the most barriers to completing their education to succeed to a greater degree.
“Moving the needle on this is not only the humanitarian thing to do, it also has a huge impact on equitable outcomes,” Hall said
The college’s governing board hasn’t made any concrete decisions as to sources of funding for construction beyond SB 169, but everything from a bond to public-private partnerships is an option, Hall said. These could include options that mitigate the risks posed to community colleges operating housing, like having the college’s foundation, a management company or another 501(c)3 own the buildings and leasing them back to the college.