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Two UCBerkeley students looking up at apartments by a "for rent" sign.
University of California at Berkeley students Sanaa Sodhi, right, and Cheryl Tugade look for apartments in Berkeley in March. Many college students are trying to find an affordable place to live as rents surge nationally, affecting seniors, young families and students alike. (Eric Risberg/AP)

A tight housing market and renewed desire for campus life have left some schools with long waiting lists for dorms

The end of summer is always stressful for Jordan Hubbard, as he tries to find a place to live for the upcoming semester. This year is even worse: Military benefits that helped him pay for tuition and housing at New York University ended this spring. He needs the money he’s earning from two jobs this summer, as well as a stipend for his role in student government, to pay for classes.

He knows some people whose parents can help them rent places in the neighborhoods near their NYU classes, but he knows many low-income students are crowding into apartments a long subway ride away from campus. “All I see on my Instagram feed is … ‘Who’s subletting? Who’s looking for roommates?’” he said.

It’s scary, Hubbard said, shortly before the start of his senior year. “I have no way to pay for any kind of housing.”

Surging rental costs and greater demand for traditional campus life after the disruptions of the pandemic have students at some universities scrambling to find housing. At schools struggling with long wait lists for university housing, efforts to accommodate students have led to some unusual solutions.

Rents are rising everywhere. See how much prices are up in your area.

Housing “is a beast right now,” said Ron Hall, a senior who leads student government at NYU. Sometimes, he said, “students are shut off from being able to come to school because of the housing costs.”

Colleges’ ability to draw students, and their surrounding markets, vary dramatically, and some schools are grappling with declining enrollment. But at some campuses and in some regions, housing issues are acute.

In California, the state is pouring money into building new student housing at public universities, after shortages and legal battles escalated in some college towns. A lawsuit claimed the University of California at Berkeley’s enrollment and resulting demand for scarce housing were straining nearby neighborhoods and forcing longtime residents from their homes, leading to a court order to cap enrollment that was later overturned by state leaders. Berkeley has also faced multiple starts and stops on a project at a park near campus that would include more than 1,000 beds for students.

“The university has faced legal challenges around almost every single housing project it has launched in recent years,” spokesman Dan Mogulof said.

Meanwhile, some of the state’s community colleges, traditionally commuter schools for students juggling jobs and classes, are now planning to build dorms. The University of California at Los Angeles has promised that all incoming freshmen, beginning this fall, will be guaranteed campus housing for up to four years.

The urgency is hard to overstate, said Alex Niles, 21, a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara who is chair of government relations for the University of California Student Association. Last year, he said, “There were students living in illegal subleases and garages, way too many students sleeping in cars parked on the street, or couch-surfing. It’s really common to have 13 students to a house,” he said, with bunk beds cramming four or more students into a room. “Rents are sky-high.”
Virginia Commonwealth University senior Sabeeka Khan in Richmond, (Paul Lewarne) (Paul Lewarne)

Virginia Commonwealth University senior Sabeeka Khan in Richmond, (Paul Lewarne)
Virginia Commonwealth University senior Sabeeka Khan in Richmond, (Paul Lewarne)

At Virginia Commonwealth University, senior Sabeeka Khan said a lot of people struggle to pay rent, using their student loans to cover it and worrying near the end of the year when the loan money is drying up. Some students can’t afford to live in safer neighborhoods in Richmond, she said.

At Florida Atlantic University, many more students are asking to live on campus now than before the pandemic. The biggest factor, said Larry Faerman, the acting vice president of student affairs at FAU, is the cost of rentals in the area: He said they have roughly doubled in the past year or 15 months. The cost of driving has gone up, as well.

The school had a wait list of more than 800 students hoping for campus housing in the spring who had to look for alternatives. “I don’t know how many of them will elect not to return to school if they can’t find accommodations,” he said.

They also found that more students than usual held onto their campus housing for the fall. This year, the school has about 175 more students who have signed contracts than it can house. FAU will give those students rooms in local hotels — at the cost of student housing — and provide some transportation to and from campus.

The school is also planning to offer more classes online, he said, to let students learn away from campus.

They overcame poverty to get to college. Then they saw the housing costs.

At the University of Utah, the wait list for housing exceeded 3,500 students this spring.

University officials are planning new residential buildings, but took several interim steps this summer to ease the gap. They sublet an apartment building owned by nearby Westminster College, and plan to use nearly 300 rooms at an on-campus hotel for students this year.

They’re also launching a pilot program to connect students with graduates as far as 45 miles away from campus who are willing to provide housing. The university will charge a flat $5,000-per-semester fee to students and pay that to alumni for rooms or apartments in their homes — or direct it to a scholarship fund, if alumni want to donate. That’s significantly less than the typical rate for a studio apartment near campus, said Bethany Hardwig, director of special projects and outreach in the Office of Alumni Relations.

There is so much need for housing, Hardwig said, that one graduate told her that within an hour of posting an available apartment, 100 people had filled out a form in response. “That just felt really unmanageable,” she said.

Linda Dunn, who has multiple ties to the university, has extra room in her house several miles from campus — but had hesitated to rent it, nervous about having a stranger in her home. The university’s safeguards reassured her. “My neighborhood is very beautiful,” she said, right up against the mountains, minutes from canyons and hiking, and half an hour from multiple ski resorts.

Even in expensive housing markets such as Washington, some students are finding solutions.

At American University, senior Henry Sprouse said he found an apartment near campus relatively easily, and is sharing the two-bedroom with two friends. He’ll pay $950 a month for his half of one bedroom.

His father Scott Sprouse said the process wasn’t as hard as he had worried it might be. Last year, his son’s rent for a 700-square-foot apartment was more than the mortgage payment for the family’s 3,400-square-foot house on an acre and a half just outside of Nashville, he said. “But when I looked at the market, it was a fair price. And when you get a roommate, that helps with that price.”

At Howard University, Cynthia Evers, vice president for student affairs, said they have seen increased demand for housing on campus this year, and have worked to make more beds available on and off-campus.

With uptick in enrollment, Howard University braces for housing shortage

Last year, Jomi Ward helped organize efforts for fellow Howard University students struggling to find affordable apartments. This year, Ward is happy to be able to live on campus, where she applied to be a resident adviser.

“Senior year is my only opportunity to really live the on-campus-housing life, develop connections with other students, and enjoy college,” she said as she packed for the fall semester. “It’s my last hurrah.”

Jordan Hubbard, senior at New York University, is trying to get housing for the fall semester. (Loan Hoang)
Jordan Hubbard, senior at New York University, is trying to get housing for the fall semester. (Loan Hoang)

Meanwhile, in New York, NYU officials have seen heavier than usual demand for on-campus housing, and fewer cancellations, according to spokesman John Beckman.
Jordan Hubbard, senior at New York University, is trying to get housing for the fall semester. (Loan Hoang)

Hubbard, who’s a student leader on campus, said NYU administrators have been very supportive and helpful and he’s grateful for that.

A program allowing students to donate unused meal “swipes” from their dining cards to help others eat was incredibly helpful, as well. “I literally survived off ‘Swipe it Forward,’” for lunches and dinner this past semester, he said.

He has kept a record, since sixth or seventh grade, of the requirements for admission to NYU. “It was always my dream,” he said. School officials are working with him to help keep him enrolled despite the costs, he said.

For now, with the school year starting in weeks, he’s still unsure of where he could live for senior year. But, he said, “things are looking hopeful.”

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