Tipping Point

The new face of Sacramento’s affordable housing crisis: College students forced to drop out

This story is part of Tipping Point, our new project focused on telling the stories of the Sacramento region’s evolution. Read more of our Tipping Point stories here.

After classes at Sacramento State, when others had gone home, Alvin Prasad would spend the night sleeping in his Honda. He couldn’t afford an apartment and was too tired to drive to his parents’ Modesto home. “In winter, you have a blanket, sometimes it’s not warm enough.”

Criminal justice major Jayda Preyer chose Sacramento for college because rents here were lower than San Francisco. Then the rents here soared. Without family help, she’s in 30-day emergency housing on campus, not knowing what happens next. “I believe in God. I’ll be OK. But it’s very nerve-wracking.”

Alexandra Lopez is more fortunate. She has an apartment and job, but a recent pay increase disqualified her for a CalFresh food subsidy. She’s among many California students who queue for free food at their campus pantry. “I had to use the money I made to keep a roof over my head. This is hard to experience.”

Going to college is tough for many students under normal circumstances. But for tens of thousands of young Californians today, it’s beyond difficult. It’s financially and physically perilous.

Faced with tuition escalation and fast-rising rents – particularly in Sacramento – higher-education students find themselves struggling to get a decent night’s sleep, find permanent shelter and put food in their stomach so they can focus enough in class to make it to graduation. Nearly 40 percent of Sacramento-area college students struggle to find affordable housing.

At Sacramento State, where many students are on low-income Pell grants, security guards look the other way when they encounter students sleeping in a 24-hour study hall. Students live in their cars, emergency shelter beds and, in one extreme case, a storage locker.

An expanded food pantry serves thousands of students; a discreet exit allows them to leave with their groceries without having to walk through the Student Union. And the school’s catering staff text messages students when there are leftovers from university luncheons so the kids can grab food before it’s thrown out.

The effect is profound. Without major private universities, Sacramento relies heavily on Sacramento State and the area’s network of community colleges to train and educate the foundation of the region’s workforce. But fewer than half of Sacramento State students graduate within five years, well below the California State University system average.

Housing insecurity has become California higher education’s not-so-hidden crisis.

How bad is it? Student surveys indicate somewhere between 5 and 11 percent of California State University students experience homelessness at some point each year. That number jumps to nearly 20 percent for students at two-year community colleges, which rarely offer campus housing, where financial aid is less available and where many students are in their mid-20s or older without family financial support.

In many cases, homelessness in higher education appears to be brief and controlled: students typically spend a few weeks “couch surfing” at friends’ places. In other cases, the situation is unsafe and unacceptable. Students sleep in their cars for days or weeks, then shower at a campus recreation facility.

One student wrote an essay about living in a rented storage locker. Sacramento State Dean of Students Beth Lesen said the woman wrote she had been forced to flee an apartment she shared with an abusive man, but didn’t have the money for a place of her own. Lesen says she’s also heard of one student who slept in a tent by the river.

Statewide, one out of three students struggles to afford rent after paying for tuition, books, food, and transportation, according to a new study by the California Student Aid Commission. Sacramento and the Central Valley in particular are an epicenter of collegians on the edge. About 38 percent of students at Sacramento State, UC Davis and local community colleges report they struggle to find affordable housing. Overall in the Central Valley, 41 percent report what officials call “housing insecurity.”

Sacramento State social work assistant professor Arturo Baiocchi, who has studied the region’s broader homeless problem, put it bluntly: state and local housing and education policy is failing California’s poorer and more vulnerable students.

“This is about our lack of values to help young people be successful,” Baiocchi charged. “College is supposed to be hard. But students sleeping in their car or in a storage facility. My God!”

Colleges as social service agencies

Colleges are scrambling to deal with the crisis by morphing into social service agencies. Most colleges now give out free food on a daily basis, conduct crisis intervention and psychological counseling, and find themselves dialing local landlords looking for cheap apartments for students.

Sacramento State has opened six temporary emergency beds for homeless students. It just added a second case manager for students in crisis, and has 16 mental health counselors – a number that has nearly doubled in the past ten years.

That may not be enough, Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen said last week. The university, he says, is feeling its way forward.

The school’s recently enlarged free food pantry in the Student Union now serves thousands annually, including students’ family members. Lopez, a third-year student, visits the pantry so she can afford other necessities. She initially qualified for $200 a month through CalFresh, but when she increased her work hours, she was disqualified from the program. She now relies on her job and a student loan.

“I am working to pay it off, because I am trying not to graduate with too much debt,” Lopez said.

Student Clara Mbumba visits the pop up food pantry at the Sacramento State quad on Sept. 23. Mbumba has experienced food insecurity at her time at Sacramento State. “It still has an effect on me – not knowing when I’ll have my next meal,” Mbumba said. Daniel Kim dkim@sacbee.com

Many students like Lopez try to organize their current and future finances, nervous that their expenses will only continue adding up. The pantry, albeit modestly stocked, alleviates some of those expenses.

“It has been a surprise to me here how much our students struggle,” school President Nelsen said. “If you are hungry, you do not do well on your test. If you don’t have a home, it is hard to write a paper and hard to study. And if you don’t feel good about yourself, you struggle to succeed.”

Nelsen and his wife Jody have donated $50,000 of their own money to a student “emergency grant fund” that gives $1,500 grants to students in financial crisis. (The fund is named after the Nelsens’ late son Seth, who committed suicide at age 25.)

A campus study hall, the Academic Information Resources Center, which is open 24 hours a day, has become an impromptu dorm for some, and college officials for the most part turn a blind eye. If a student falls asleep, graveyard shift guards may not roust them, choosing to conclude the student just fell asleep during a late-night study session. “We have noticed students have made a habit of falling asleep in that building,” Lesen said.

Sacramento economy at stake

Students’ individual futures are not the only thing at stake. The Sacramento economy needs them to succeed, said Barry Broome, head of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. Broome is responsible for persuading outside businesses that Sacramento’s universities are producing a ready-for-success future workforce. “There is nothing more important than nurturing and developing our college students. I literally think it is the survival of our region’s economy to do that.”

How well are universities doing in guiding students toward success? It’s a mixed bag.

More than one-third of the incoming Sacramento State class of 2013 has dropped out. So far, after five years, just 41 percent of that class has graduated. That’s notably below the CSU system-wide 52 percent number.

But CSU and Sacramento State graduation rates are notably and steadily improving in recent years, thanks to a system-wide initiative that includes adding classes and teachers. Sac State is on track to meet its graduation-rate goals for 2025. But that goal, a 63-percent graduation rate after six years, is arguably modest.


Why we reported this story

California State University, Sacramento, is one of our region’s major institutions of higher education. But just 41 percent of students graduate within five years – and housing and food insecurity are major factors driving students to drop out.

Sac State has enough affordable housing for just 11 percent of its student body. Meanwhile, some students live in cars, shelters and tents.

What can California, Sacramento and CSU leaders do to address this growing crisis?

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What is Sacramento's Tipping Point?

This is Tipping Point, our new initiative focused on telling the stories of the Sacramento region’s evolution. We have formed a team of reporters and editors who are writing weekly stories focused on the challenges and opportunities in the region.

Another team of journalists are organizing community forums to open a conversation about how we avoid the mistakes of San Francisco and Seattle, where progress for a few came at the expense of so many.

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The problem is bigger than CSU, UC or the community colleges. California is suffering from a still-uncontrolled housing crisis, and colleges are caught in the middle. And while Sacramento rents aren’t as expensive as in some coastal communities, they have been rising fast for several years.

A Sacramento Bee analysis found the typical rent here soared 45 percent adjusting for inflation in the last seven years as the region emerged from the Great Recession. That vaulted Sacramento rents from 25th to 11th among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, according to Zillow.com, a national real estate listing firm.

Los Rios Community College District Chancellor Brian King says that is catching students by surprise. “There’s a gap between the expectation and the reality of housing costs,” he said. “People who may have come to this region thinking they’ll find affordable housing have failed to do so.”

Los Rios has launched what it calls the Los Rios Promise Program, reaching out to community members to raise funds for struggling students.

Jayda’s dilemma: Sacramento isn’t cheap

Jayda Preyer is among those hit by sticker shock.

She is an energetic criminal justice major at Sacramento State who just tried out for a spot on the university dance company and got one to her surprise. “I was just doing it to get over my fear of auditions!,” she said.

Preyer applied for on-campus 30-day emergency housing when her options ran out. She began looking for apartments, but she couldn’t afford them. She has until Oct. 10 to find an apartment, or she may resort to sleeping in her car, she said.

“I’m trying not to be concerned, but I am,” she said.

Finally living on campus, though, she feels like a full college student.

She studies in the Student Union – aiming for straight As in her classes – and may take a bartending class to get a part-time job.

Preyer did a lot of research on the rental market before choosing Sacramento State over San Francisco and Long Beach State Universities in 2018. But Sacramento rents increased by several hundred dollars, surprising Preyer when she got here. If she chose to attend San Francisco State, she would have already been living on campus, she said.

Jayda Preyer dances at her dance class at Solano Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Daniel Kim dkim@sacbee.com

“Before I got here, I was able to afford it,” Preyer said. “I knew Sacramento was an affordable place, but every place I was looking at went up by $300.”

Preyer is on the waitlist for on-campus housing, which would cost about $8,000 up front, but would allow her to pay using financial aid. She visited an apartment off Hurley Way last week, in a neighborhood that doesn’t look very safe, she said. But if she had qualified, she would have paid $500, along with her future roommate. She was denied on Tuesday, because her roommate’s credit score was too low.

“We told them about how we will be homeless very soon,” Preyer said. “And yet we were still denied.”

Not enough student housing

It’s not just high rental prices that are placing students like Preyer on the edge. It’s a lack of apartments. Sacramento State offers on-campus housing for just 2,100 of its 31,500 students, or 7 percent. The new Hornet Commons student housing complex, now under construction, will add 1,100 spots, bringing the on-campus total to 11 percent (although Hornet Commons is technically outside of campus, and is being privately built).

In comparison, universities in the high-priced Bay Area are providing far more housing for college students. San Francisco State has on-campus housing for nearly 20 percent of its students. UC Berkeley houses 27 percent of its students. Stanford University, a private university in Silicon Valley, houses 93 percent of students on campus.

National builders have their eye on the area around Sacramento State. One said the “dearth” of on-campus housing presents a money-making opportunity for apartment builders of dorm-style projects for students. Tentative proposals, if realized, could bring up to 4,000 new beds near campus in the area around Folsom Boulevard south of campus.

The Crossings’ general manager Lisa Corey walks between buildings at The Crossings on Tuesday, August 21, 2018 in Sacramento, Calif. The Crossings is one of 7 new housing developments being built around Sacramento State as developers plan to build housing for 4,000 Sacramento State University students. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Academy 65, just opened and nearly rented out, may be the harbinger. “I’d be surprised if they (builders) don’t come thundering now,” said Phil Harvey, a local architect who has worked on several student-oriented proposed apartment projects.

But the rents in those buildings are likely to be market rate. That means they will be out of reach for poorer students. The lowest prices online last week for Academy 65 were $599 per room, but those appeared to be rooms already filled.

“We try to work closely with builders and property developers who are creating housing targeted at our student population,” Nelsen said. “We always hope that they will take into account the financial challenges that our students face. We must partner to create more affordable housing with convenient access to campus.”

The campus is also launching an unusual initiative. Dean of Students Lesen says campus officials have started asking empty-nester alumni and Renaissance Society members to consider renting rooms in their houses to students, possibly for $500 or less. The area’s bigger housing issues though are way beyond Sacramento State’s means. “We can’t fix a housing affordability crisis,” Lesen said. “What we have are Band-Aids.”

Sleeping in cars

The student housing crisis has been obscured in political discussions by broader state housing issues. But it made headlines, and created some embarrassment, this year when Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, introduced a measure that would have required the state’s community colleges to allow students to sleep in cars on campus parking lots.

The measure failed. Berman said fellow legislators told him “it made them feel icky. It made them feel sad.” But it succeeded in focusing attention on the extent to which some students are struggling to get a degree.

Student Alvin Prasad, 31, said he slept in his car several nights a week in residential areas for a few years. It’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, humbling and a bit scary, he said. He’ll never forget waking up one night to the sound of shattering glass. Someone was breaking into a car a few feet away.

“Generally speaking, there is no overnight parking at Sacramento State,” said University Police Chief Mark Iwasa. “There is an assumption that there is some kind of security on campus, but we don’t really have a system to adequately check on [students sleeping in their cars].”

Prasad would return home to Modesto to work weekends in a factory. He said he has since landed a room in a four-bedroom house in Rosemont for $500. He agreed to mow the lawn and take care of basic maintenance at the house in exchange for $100 off the regular monthly rent. Like many other students, he didn’t advertise his situation.

Student Alvin Prasad, 31, poses for a portrait outside of his car in a parking lot at Sacramento State on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2019. Prasad, who studied mechanical engineering, would commute from Modesto and sleep in his car or other places on campus during busy times of the school year to avoid driving home. Daniel Kim dkim@sacbee.com

“That’s not the kind of thing you talk about,” he said. “It was a humbling experience. You don’t sleep that well. You show up to class and you’re tired and if the lecture’s not exciting you can doze off.”

Amid a still shaky economy, mental health issues among college students are emerging as a correlated concern. A landmark national incoming freshman survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that only 47 percent of college freshmen overall felt their mental health was above average, compared to 63 percent who felt that way a generation ago.

CSU officials statewide have been reaching out this year to county mental health professionals in hopes of setting up mutually beneficial partnerships, said Luoluo Hong, CSU associate vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management.

“Our students are extremely tenacious,” Hong said. But, “one dominant trend is our students come to college with higher levels of anxiety, stress and worry. We already had mental health as one of the first needs we were dealing with. “

Are Sacramento and California helping?

Colm Fitzgerald, a San Joaquin Delta College student and statewide student representative, is upset that state leaders have not dealt sufficiently with the issues community college students in particular face.

“There is a severe lack of help for basic needs,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re the most disenfranchised, low-income, we receive the least amount of financial aid. Why does that make any sense? This is the big question: Why does the legislature pay more attention to UC and CSU?”

State officials offered new money this year to higher education systems to help improve graduation numbers, and added some money for rapid rehousing of students, including homeless students, who need a one-time boost to get their living situation stabilized. Some funding also will be coming to help colleges connect better with county mental health services.

Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty is working with others in the legislature on a bill that would expand eligibility in California for financial aid, and link grants to the total cost of college, not just tuition costs.

But the key problem, lack of affordable housing in California and in Sacramento, remains an unresolved long-term issue.

Sacramento city officials have taken small steps to help Sacramento State students in particular. The city has reduced some fees for development around the Regional Transit bus and light rail station at 65th Street and Folsom Boulevard.

City Councilman Eric Guerra, who was born in Mexico, slept in his car as a Sacramento State student for awhile behind a der Wienerschnitzel in Del Paso Heights when he first arrived in town two decades ago.

He said he doesn’t wish that kind of “rocky welcome to Sacramento” on any student. But, neither the university or the city have done enough to address the problem.

“We’re playing catch-up,” he said.

Sacramento Bee reporter Vincent Moleski contributed to this report.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.