College Matters | We share an obligation on housing

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, July 21, 2022 - 1:30pm

The single greatest challenge for Cal Poly Humboldt is student and workforce housing. Many of you have heard me make that statement. What usually follows is this additional comment: “If 5,000 students were to arrive today, they would be gone by Sunday simply because they have discovered there is no place on or off campus to live.”

These are very exciting times in Humboldt County. There is a vibrancy, a renewal. We have positive things happening, including but definitely not limited to fish farms, microgrids, subsea cable, wind and other renewable energies, tourism, and our polytechnic. We also have new residents in the county who may work remotely elsewhere. Any one of these, by themselves, would be exciting. All of them together is a significant resurgence for the county.

In 2014-15 Cal Poly Humboldt had 8,500 students. This was a large number of students matched by a large number of employees on campus. These students resided in residence halls and apartments as you might expect, but also garage apartments, spare bedrooms, tents, cars, and other places they could find. The campus only has 2,000 beds on campus for students. That means 6,500 students had to find spaces throughout the community. Today, many of those apartments, homes, and spare rooms are no longer available.

Cal Poly Humboldt today has 6,500 students. Yet, we are still struggling with housing the students who are enrolled.

This is why, as a campus, we are investing as rapidly as possible to provide spaces for students. Providing student housing also creates open spaces for our growing workforce throughout the community — not just Cal Poly Humboldt’s but all the other industries located in the county.

Housing is a big challenge on the North Coast, and as often happens with local challenges, Cal Poly Humboldt shares this one. As a university, we must find new housing for students as well as for our growing workforce of faculty and staff, even as broader demand for housing in the region is intensifying. As transfer and first-year students become residents of this community, the type of space that they live in is extremely important. First-year students, those usually 18-19 years of age, require a different structure and level of support than upperclass/graduate students, who are often in the 20- to 24-year-old range. One of the most challenging and difficult options for first-year students is living off-campus in an unstructured environment.

A few key facts:

  • Housing is in very short supply at all price levels in Humboldt County.
  • The lack of housing is not driven by the planned enrollment growth at Cal Poly Humboldt, which hasn’t happened yet. In fact, we have nearly 2,000 fewer students today.
  • As part of its historic investment in Cal Poly Humboldt, the state has clear expectations that we grow our enrollment from around 6,500 today to around 11,000 in the next 5-7 years.

Cal Poly Humboldt’s plan includes deliberately, but slowly, growing so our housing capacity generally stays close to our demand. We also intend to retain some level of online learning. All told, we won’t physically be much larger than we have been in our past. The difference is we will have a better infrastructure to support these students while fully understanding that there are workforce housing needs in other industries as well.

The good news is that, while housing is one of our biggest challenges, it is also a big opportunity due to the state’s historic investment in Cal Poly Humboldt. The state provided an astounding $458 million to jumpstart our polytechnic efforts, with some of the funding dedicated to new student housing. This funding of polytechnic efforts will also serve to energize the region’s economy because a significant portion of the resources will directly flow into our local economy. This means we will collectively have more resources available to tackle the housing challenges.

The campus will have multiple projects. The Trinity Annex/Children Center is underway. At Craftsman Mall, a short distance from campus, we are working on a housing community to house approximately 1,000 students. It should be ready in 2025. On campus, we are planning to incorporate housing for hundreds of students into a new engineering and technology facility. We also have plans for new on-campus housing near our university library. Efforts are also underway — by us and by private developers — to create new student-housing opportunities in Eureka and other communities outside Arcata.

Students and their families spend money. That money produces jobs and tax revenues, which in turn is used for community services and much more. This stands to benefit the county in unprecedented ways into the future.

So what drives the demand for student housing at Cal Poly Humboldt? In part, it is enrollment growth due to polytechnic expansion and the additional high-demand programs we will be offering. In part, it is the type of campus we have always been. We are a destination campus, different from nearly all California State University campuses. Most of our students travel to go to school here. Just 20% of our student body comes from our local area and the North State — which we are proud of, given how small and rural this region is. We will continue to try to grow this local enrollment.

Fully 80% of our students come from outside the area. They travel here for the educational experience we provide, the amazing living laboratory of our natural environment, and the small communities they can live in. For more than a century now, this region has welcomed these students. Today, welcoming them means making sure we are able to house them.

I believe the housing challenge, and specifically the need for student housing, is one that our region can address. As a society, we prioritize many different types of efforts. It seems reasonable to ask communities that significantly benefit from students and the campus to prioritize housing for college students. In this situation, new budget allocations are available to help. We just need to fully commit to it, and your continued support is needed.

Be well.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt.