As UC housing crunch worsens, students find out what it’s like to live in hotel

Zarai Saldana expected to kick off her senior year at UC Merced from a brand-new apartment where she’d already signed a lease. Instead, the transfer student spent the first two weeks of the school year shuttling from hotel to hotel.

Construction delays had held up the opening of Merced Station, the private student apartment complex where she’d planned to live, leaving more than 500 of UC Merced’s 9,000-plus students without housing.

In hotel rooms paid for by the university, Saldana and her roommate took turns studying or eating on the one desk. With no kitchen, she couldn’t prepare food. And 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 a span of 11 days. The constant moving affected her studies.

Students gather outside of the UC Santa Barbara library Nov. 5 to protest the pending eviction of students from hotels and the construction of Munger Hall. (Joshua Yepez Martinez/CalMatters)

“I didn’t start off as well as I hoped I would,” she said. “I started falling behind.”

Saldana eventually found a room to rent off campus. But her experience reflects that of thousands of students across the UC system who were eager to return 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 pricey off-campus apartments, some ended up in unconventional housing — local hotel rooms.

At least four UC campuses offered a hotel option, providing temporary relief to hundreds of students. But the financial support that went along with them varied from campus to campus. And for many students, finding more permanent, affordable housing remains elusive, even as the end of fall quarter nears.

A long-standing problem

Affordable housing has long been an issue for California’s public universities. In 2020, 16% of UC students lived in hotels, transitional housing or outdoor locations because they didn’t have permanent housing, according to a report from the state’s Legislative Analyst Office. Though the UC system has added about 20,000 more beds across its 10 campuses since the 2015-16 school year, there were still more than 7,500 students on waitlists to get on campus housing during Fall 2021, the LAO found.

The pandemic exacerbated UC’s housing crunch. Administrators said uncertainty around whether instruction would be in person or online created a last-minute rush of students applying for housing after those decisions were made. To keep campuses COVID safe, some set aside beds for quarantining students who become infected and lowered density in dorms, meaning fewer beds were available. And in coastal cities like Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, students found themselves facing housing markets that were transformed by the pandemic. Besides camping out in hotels, some resorted to other extreme measures to counter the high cost of living, including couchsurfing and commuting long distances.

The UC Merced students who were living in hotels have since moved into apartments or on-campus housing, said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Charles Nies. But UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz have also turned to hotels to house students.

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