Just a few years after Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa became the first community college in Southern California to build housing for its students, several of its peers are following suit to combat the high cost of housing and address student homelessness.

Long Beach City College, for its part, is looking to create housing for 200 or more students in the next few years. Compton College could add about 250 beds for students and, in some cases, their children. And building student housing is a key part of the Los Angeles Community College District’s plan to spend $5.3 billion upgrading its nine campuses.

“We have a lot of students who are housing insecure,” and it’s a barrier to higher education, said Chip West, Long Beach City College’s vice president of business services.

While they’re still at an early stage, Long Beach Community College District trustees last month asked staff to pursue plans to spend about $120 million on building about 25 to 30 beds and several classrooms in North Long Beach and a much larger development (up to 350 beds) at the school’s Liberal Arts Campus northeast of the airport, West said.

There’s no doubt it’s a pressing issue. A report put out earlier this year by the administrative arm of the state’s community college system cited a survey of more than 500,000 college and university students that found in the previous year, 60% of the students faced housing insecurity and 19% had been homeless.

Long Beach Community College District Trustee Sunny Zia said she and Trustee Virginia Baxter have been trying to support unhoused students since 2015. They created a committee that helps with scholarships, first and last months’ rent and whatever else they need.

That committee, according to Zia, has helped more than 1,400 unhoused students. Building student apartments is a natural next step, and “it can’t be soon enough,” she said.

A critical need

The Harbour student housing development at Orange Coast College, which opened in 2020, may be a forecast of what Long Beach can expect, at least in terms of demand.

The 800-bed complex offers five floor plans at different price points, with options for private and shared bedrooms, OCC Director of Housing and Residential Education Jamie Kammerman said. The units are furnished, utilities and wifi are included in the rent, and lease dates are tied to the school calendar.

The exterior of a four-story student housing complex at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa is pictured.
The Harbour, one of the first student housing developments at a community college in Southern California, opened at Costa Mesa’s Orange Coast College in 2020. Photo courtesy of OCC.

Housing on campus has been a good option for international students, and the school gives priority to foster youth and offers financial support for military veterans, Kammerman said, adding that having students right there has boosted involvement in school activities.

Occupancy started out low because of the pandemic, but for the last several semesters, the Harbour has been about 96% to 98% full with a waitlist.

For some students, “housing has been critical for them to continue their education,” Kammerman said—and it even helps with recruitment.

“There’s students that have very clearly shared with us that having housing on campus was a big part of their decision in coming to OCC,” she said.

For Long Beach City College student Fifonsi Jenkins (who goes by the nickname Fifi), being unhoused almost put an end to her schooling.

Born in Benin in West Africa, she came to the U.S. in the hope of getting an education that wasn’t available at home. She met a man, got married and was living with him in Oregon, but when he became abusive, she left and moved to California.

While taking classes at LBCC, she found herself with no place to live, so she created a little hut among some bushes on campus and washed up in school restrooms before going to class, she said.

Things took a turn after one of her teachers saw her looking in the trash at a fast food restaurant for something to eat. Jenkins had been afraid to ask for help because her husband had told her she could be sent to jail if she told anyone about her situation, but the teacher introduced her to Sunny Zia, the college trustee, who was eager to help.

Jenkins said Zia helped her apply for financial aid and a housing voucher as a survivor of domestic violence, and she was able to move into an apartment in San Pedro. Zia and Baxter got Jenkins clothes and shoes and helped her furnish her apartment.

After eight long years at LBCC, Jenkins, 41, received her diploma earlier this month (though she still has to make up one class) and is planning to take courses to become a pharmacist.

When she was homeless, “I thought about giving up. I cried and said, ‘Why me, what did I do? All I wanted was to go to school,’” she said.

“Long Beach City College opened a lot of doors for me.”

Removing barriers

Student housing isn’t likely to become an amenity at every community college, but where it is happening, it appears to be part of a broader trend of “supporting the whole student,” said Martha Parham, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Schools’ varied approaches to clearing away the barriers to an education have included partnering with delivery services to get food to students in need, providing gas cards so students can get to campus, and offering child care—anything that takes care of life necessities so students can concentrate on their studies.

“Access is a core tenet of what community colleges are, but if they can get in and they can’t succeed, that’s a problem,” Parham said.

West, at the Long Beach Community College District, said he expects to bring more detailed cost estimates, construction timelines and the potential housing mix to trustees in August. While there are plenty of projects competing for $400 million the district has left from previous bond issues, the board has made clear housing is a priority, he said.

The college is in negotiations with the city of Long Beach to buy several pieces of property by the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library for the smaller housing development and classrooms.

Community colleges, especially in California, have been evolving from a place to get a certificate and move on, into a lower-cost option that offers sports and other extracurricular programs as part of a well-rounded student experience, West said—and housing is part of that shift.

“For them to be able to be here and be part of the campus community at a rate they can afford and still get a quality education, that’s what we’re really about.”