As rent prices rise across California, many struggle to find safe and affordable housing. But students face additional difficulties when they come to a new town, have little rental history and the additional burden of paying for their education.
For Chico State students on a budget, affordable housing exists, but it often comes with other costs. Finding a cheap place to rent often means having more roommates than you’d prefer, signing a fixed-term lease, or living in a location that isn’t ideal.
Take Jessica, for example. She asked us to use a pseudonym because she’s worried her landlord will hear this story. She’s a young mother, who looks to be in her mid-20s. She’s raising a 4-year-old while getting her college degree and currently lives in an off-campus apartment on Nord Avenue in Chico. Jessica says it’s not the neighborhood she would like to live in, but it’s what she can currently afford.
“There’s a lot of crimes reported in my neighborhood and like I won’t walk, I’ve seen cars get stolen, like with my own two eyes," she said.
Jessica just qualified for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8. She’s currently on a waitlist. Getting one of the vouchers would mean she’d pay only a certain amount of her monthly income for rent with the federal government picking up the rest. With the voucher, she says she could afford a nicer place, in a better area.
“I mean it will take a while to do that, but you get more choice in where you want to live with that,” she said.
For other students at Chico State, roommates are the answer to finding an affordable house, but they can cause other kinds of financial strain. Take Nadine Salas, for example. When she decided to move off-campus her sophomore year, she said she underestimated the amount of time it would take to find a place. Students will typically begin looking for housing in December for fall of the following year, but she didn’t start looking until April. She happened to find a friend whose roommate had dropped out last minute.
“My sophomore year was the worst year I’ve had with housing ever,” she said. “So found a friend who got an apartment they all signed the lease, but then two of the girls decided that they no longer wanted to go to Chico. Right before the beginning of the next semester. So they dropped out, but they needed people to replace their lease, so I came in saying, 'Of course, I need somewhere to live.'"
The two girls each found someone to fill their place, but one of the people they found couldn’t qualify. His family was undocumented, so he didn’t have anyone to cosign on the lease. Nadine was desperate to find someone to fill the room and asked her mom to cosign for him even though she had only known him for a month. Not long after, he decided he didn’t like Chico and went back to live with his parents.
Since this roommate wasn't responsible for the lease, he didn’t bother to replace the room. In the end, Nadine’s family ended up paying for his rent. It wasn’t something they could really afford, but they felt they had to.
“So when you can’t pay for it and you’re living in an apartment, not one person gets evicted it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “If one person isn't paying their half of the rent the entire unit gets evicted, regardless if I'm paying my side. And so we knew that and I knew that for him too, even if my mother wasn't cosigning for him if there was nobody paying his side of the rent the entire place would get evicted and then what would happen?"
Dan Herbert is the director of off-campus students services. He says this is a common problem with students, who often feel monetary pressure to enter into leases with people they may not know very well.
“I’ve seen students that have walked away with a $5,000 bill at the end of the school year and just totally flabbergasted by the fact that they would have to pay for a damage that their roommate had incurred,” he said.
The demographics of Chico State are also changing. Herbert says there are more students who can’t qualify for an apartment on their own, and whose parents aren’t able to cosign for them.
"I mean it's pretty incredible to think that when I was here forty years ago it was a pretty middle-class, student would come to campus with mom and dad's five or six-year-old car and pretty much have their means, at least the vast majority," he said. "And now you know we're seeing 35 percent of our students who were coming here and having food insecurity and a good percentage of them having housing insecurities."
It’s Herbert’s job to help students find solutions to these kinds of problems. He says when a student doesn’t qualify for an apartment, he often calls the landlord directly and they will come up with an answer together. For example, a high grade-point average could substitute for a lack of rental history.
“Probably the biggest influx of students that come to my office are first-generation students, often low-income students and looking for solutions that they just don't, they can't find on their own," he said. "And what I have found is, is I've reached out to property owners and discussed the challenges of, property owners are becoming more and more understanding of the demographic of our Chico State student."
Andres, who also asked us not to use his real name, is a first-generation student. He says he couldn’t afford to live in the dorms his freshman year and had to find a place in Chico from his home in Los Angeles. He said he spent that whole summer searching.
“Financially everything was set, classes were set," he said. "But it was literally like if I don't get a place I'm not going to Chico, and like simple as that."
Just before the start of the semester, Andres got an email from the engineering department, his major at the time. The email said, that the school recognized he hadn’t signed up for the dorms and listed all the resources he needed to find an apartment. Andres said the email read something along the lines of:
“We see you don’t have, you don’t have a housing place yet,” he said. “Here are three other students that are in your same situation, here’s a list of a few apartments that are focused on like student housing and stuff like off-campus. You know, figure it out.”
Because of that email, Andres did figure it out. He says the help was a huge relief. This year, Dan Herbert started a new program to help expand the services offered to Chico State students. Property owners can now pay a fee to get onto a list of university recommended housing. The fee is put into a pool for grants that provide emergency funds for students with housing needs. It’s a win-win. Property owners get to advertise their units through the university and the university raises money for students who can’t afford to rent. So far, the school has raised around $40,000 through this program. But, Herbert says they haven’t needed to give out a single grant yet. He says it could be because not everyone knows about the program, or his department is usually all students need.
“So far, the people we've helped haven't needed the money, the financial grants that, we've been able to find other creative solutions," he said.
As for Nadine, Andres and Jessica, Nadine and Andres both say they love their current apartments. Jessica is still waiting for her Housing Choice Voucher, which for some, can takes years to get.