The Housing Crisis for Students Was Bad Before COVID — and It’s Only Getting Worse

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College dorm hallway

When colleges began hustling students off campus to slow the spread of COVID-19 last spring, Julia, a 21-year-old student, suddenly found that her semester abroad was cut short. She hadn’t planned on returning in mid-March, and finding housing last-minute proved difficult. So, she moved into her cargo van, on which she began basic conversions during her sophomore year after her parents floated the idea of selling their house due to financial reasons. The investment proved to be a lifeline: For seven months, Julia lived in her van, driving around trying to find good weather and safe parking lots with WiFi access so that she could complete her school work. 

When her school re-opened its physical doors in the fall of 2020, she had an on-campus dorm room, and was able to get her dog accepted as an emotional support animal. But for winter break, she was back out on her own. “I’ve been kind of just settling back into the houseless routine until school starts up again,” she told Apartment Therapy.

The questions pile up: Where will she find water, or cheap food? Safety is a major concern, and she is hyper-aware of men who might be watching her in the parking lot; she remembers one particular night when a truck pulled up next to her in the middle of the night and someone attempted to open her van’s side door. Finding a place to go to the bathroom is a degrading experience, she said, and balancing her day-to-day work on top of survival and safety is all-consuming and exhausting. “It’s humiliating, especially when I compare my experience to other students,” Julia said. “Some students are enjoying a leisurely time off at their parent’s summer home or something. And I’m taking a shit behind the 24 Hour Fitness.”

For many students, the pandemic has thrown already-precarious housing or income situations into chaos. A 2019 report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 17 percent of community college students had experienced homelessness in the last year; the organization’s spring 2020 report, surveying over 38,000 students, found that 36 percent of students at two-year institutions and 41 percent of students at four-year institutions were experiencing housing insecurity. As a result, more and more students are joining established efforts to help vulnerable peers, and some are creating new mutual aid networks or are calling on their schools to meet housing needs, especially for students who were already in vulnerable circumstances. But many are simply trying to get through the day, balancing the rigor of academic and work life with the stressors of finding safe, stable, and affordable housing.

A spring 2020 survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, 36 percent of student respondents at two-year institutions and 41 percent of student respondents at four-year institutions were experiencing housing insecurity.

“College students, they deal with the exact same issues as adults do, in that they cannot find affordable housing,” Dr. Amy Donley, an associate professor of sociology and Director of Institute for Social at University of Central Florida, tells Apartment Therapy, explaining that students attempting to live around the University of Central Florida typically need a guarantor to sign off on that lease. And experts point out that not having basic needs met unsurprisingly impacts a student’s ability to do well in school. According to a report from The Hope Center, housing insecurity and homelessness, specifically, have a significant relationship with college completion rates, and “researchers also associate basic needs insecurity with self-reports of poor physical health, symptoms of depression, and higher perceived stress.” 

“How can you possibly worry about your calculus exam when you’re worried about where you are going to sleep?” Donely adds.

Stereotypes about college students mask the pervasive issue of housing insecurity.

The “poor college student” narrative is common, but it is rooted in a myth that typically only serves one kind of student, for whom a financial or familial safety net turns low-budget meals into a rite of passage rather than a means of survival. Such stereotypes do a disservice to college students who are balancing school work and survival. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, unaccompanied youth under the age of 25 comprise six percent of the nation’s houseless population. There are plenty of factors contributing to youth homelessness, and as the Alliance also notes, marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ young people, pregnant young people, young people with disabilities, and young people of color — particularly Black and Native American young people — are more likely to become homeless than their peers. 

As Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology and medicine at Temple University and the President and Founder of Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, pointed out, there is also a broad cultural misunderstanding about what housing insecurity looks like for young people. “The stereotype of couch surfing as ‘crashing’ for a night is a long-standing way of minimizing sheltered homelessness and trying to define it as ‘not a big deal’ worthy of attention,” she told Apartment Therapy. But such an experience can irrevocably impact a young person’s future.

In an April op-ed, Jemere Calhoun, the president of the student body at Los Angeles City College, petitioned the school to offer emergency shelter for students and described how some students are sleeping in cars, in shelters, or on the street. The youth advocacy group  Young Invincibles considers one to have experienced housing insecurity if they had trouble paying for rent, lived in crowded conditions to afford it, or were forced to move frequently, and considers someone to have experienced homelessness if they have stayed in a shelter or with others to due lack of housing, slept in hotels without a permanent place to return, lived on the street or slept on public transit or in cars, or lived in unstable or unsafe conditions. Some students described living between their cars, and the campus library and gym in pre-COVID times; others mentioned bouncing back and forth between friends’ apartments, depending on who had space at a given time.

“Many students like me were already living paycheck to paycheck, but cutting off our jobs and the ability to access resources has left us stranded.”

Jemere Calhoun, in an April 2020 op-ed for the Hechinger Report

When schools abruptly closed last year in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, some students like Julia didn’t have familial homes to return to, while others were locked into leases they couldn’t break. Millions of young people found themselves jobless due to furloughs and layoffs, and the domino effect of shutting down campuses, opening them back up, and in lots of cases, shutting them right back down again, created a game of collegiate whack-a-mole that wreaked havoc on bank accounts, stability, and student housing. 

Even once they’re technically back on campus, some students have experienced chaos. Lillian, 22, says their school moved them into a hotel that was serving as makeshift “campus housing,” due to lack of space on the campus itself as a result of the pandemic, and has generally “been terrible in terms of support,” when it comes to preparing for the fall semester. “The housing situation deteriorated my mental health considerably,” added Lillian, explaining they were an honors student in the spring and failed over half their classes this semester. “Not one department was helpful or made any attempt to help beyond reminding me to ‘remember mental health,’ which is ironic.” Now, Lillian lives off-campus in a rented apartment.

Julia, who received a monetary grant from her school, pointed out that there is a gap in having resources available and actually connecting and building trust with students who need those resources, especially for low-income students or students who may not know what help is available to them. “The financial aid was great, but they just kind of threw a grant at me and then left me alone for seven months,” she added, though she noted a case manager would “email me every now and then to make sure I wasn’t dead.”

Campus housing is a primary cause of financial hardship for students.

While the popular discourse around college affordability primarily focuses on the overall cost of tuition and the need to cancel student debt, some studies demonstrate that housing in particular is a significant cost burden for students. A 2017 study noted that two-thirds of students at community colleges struggle to pay for food and find a stable housing situation; another study by the Hope Center found that working during college actually isn’t associated with lower risk of basic needs insecurity. Students with disabilities are more likely to experience financial hardships, and food and housing insecurity, as a result of the pandemic, and students of color are being disproportionately impacted by basic needs insecurity as well. 

Such is the case for Ashe, a 22-year-old student who is hearing-disabled; has mobility issues that cause him “constant pain;” and has been experiencing houselessness since 2017, when his parent began kicking him out of an abusive housing situation for weeks at a time after he began exploring his gender identity. “It was hard understanding who I was when I was more worried about where I was,” he said, noting that he would often ask friends to stay with them; the experience often came with feelings of shame and helplessness, and feeling like a burden. 

He had saved up money to finally be able to end his “stint of homelessness,” but now, “the effects of this pandemic drained my savings so much so that a cup of coffee would prevent me from affording my phone bill.” He’s grateful that his college has a program for homeless and fostered youth, in which costs of housing during breaks are decreased. “The program does their absolute best at supporting us homeless and fostered youth, and I’m less likely to go hungry with them than I am without them,” he said. Now, he stays with his brother’s father on breaks, where he’s been able to focus on his mental health, and begin to heal from trauma. “It took a while, but it was there I was finally able to draw a picture of my sense of self, and for the first time, it wasn’t cracked and crinkled to all hell,” he said. 

“The effects of this pandemic drained my savings so much so that a cup of coffee would prevent me from affording my phone bill.”

Ashe, 22-year-old student

He’s still legally homeless, he added, because he can’t support himself on his own, and he knows better than to rely on his current housing situation: For a moment at the start of the pandemic, the school couldn’t confidently assure students housing for another break or semester. “So I, personally, fear hearing that they can no longer assure us housing the longer this pandemic progresses,” Ashe said.

And the crisis reaches further than you might think.

As profoundly bad as the impact of COVID-19 has been on housing, some experts don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet; Donley believes statewide eviction moratoriums mean many areas haven’t yet witnessed the pandemic’s true impact on housing. According to Inside HigherEd, some students haven’t received rent relief or eviction moratoriums, and many off-campus housing providers have refused to release their tenants from leases during the pandemic. 

It’s worth noting that the emphasis on “college age” students often leaves out key demographics pursuing their degrees, including those who are juggling responsibilities like parenting or caregiving alongside work and school. The issue also impacts high school students experiencing homelessness, who are significantly less likely to graduate high school than their peers and are often tasked with navigating unique barriers when it comes to applying to college. 

“Before even entering college, we have the college application process, which is extremely gate-kept and meant to keep students like me out,” says MJ, a 17-year-old activist and organizer who was kicked out of their transphobic and homophobic household at age 11. The college application process is hard enough to go through solo as a student with stable conditions, they explain, but not having access to essential materials like legal documents, WiFi, and a computer makes things even harder — and that’s on top of constantly making sure they have a place to stay for the night. 

Change is still possible — and already happening.

MJ has been involved in encampment work and justice organizing in cities all over, and stressed the importance of intersectional work, especially when it comes to fighting the ways in which houseless communities are routinely overpoliced. Their personal experience also fuels their passion to attend law school and pursue movement-based law. “Being a product of displacement and houselessness, I have plans to start a pro-bono, anti-state law firm in the future that doesn’t just help youth, but fights for youth and other displaced folx who feel like they have been given up on,” they said, adding that “we cannot have a conversation about houselessness without also talking about capitalism and white supremacy.” 

“The mindset of being houseless will definitely follow me to college as it has shaped my worldview in general.”

MJ, 17-year-old activist and organizer

According to Goldrick-Rab, part of the issue is a fundamental misconception about who college students are by the people who are most able to help them. “If [state and federal policymakers, as well as many college presidents] believe every college student lives in dorms, enjoys a full meal plan, and gets an allowance from [their] parents then they won’t offer adequate financial aid, affordable food, or emergency aid,” she said. In order to adequately address the issue, she believes many schools should restructure student support services to include opportunities for affordable food and housing, and both federal and state lawmakers should fund statewide emergency aid programs, among other things. 

Recent reporting by the New York Times states that a program at Tacoma Community College in Tacoma, Washington, partnered with Tacoma Housing Authority to provide housing to dozens of students; earlier reporting from the Hechinger Report pointed to similar programs at different schools. Students are also creating their own mutual aid networks in order to help meet the basic needs of peers, the New York Times notes. Students were creating pandemic-specific resources via spreadsheets and Facebook groups as early as March 2020, while others created organizations focused on advocating for and securing housing opportunities for other young people. The nonprofit Believe in Students, which focuses on college students’ living expenses, has provided nearly a million dollars in emergency financial support since the pandemic began, according to their website. (In a surreal twist, GoFundMe suggested students crowdfund their financial support during the pandemic.) But housing insecurity and homelessness are systemic issues, and they demand systemic solutions that include students. 

For her part, Julia would like to see all kinds of houselessness represented in conversations about these issues, whether one is physically on the street, sleeping on a friend’s couch, or living in a van. That representation, she adds, is doubly important when you compare it to the pervasive narrative of how college students are spending their time right now: She recalled seeing her school’s Instagram account feature quirky glimpses of “life at home” during the pandemic, such as baking bread or coming up with new hobbies. “That was just not my experience at all,” she said of the seven months she spent off-campus in her van. “I was trying to survive day to day.”

*Last names have been omitted to protect privacy.