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Santa Rosa Junior College pushes back on-campus housing timeline

The $46.5 million housing complex, which will house up to 352 students, is now expected to open in fall 2023.|

Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation

More information about donating to the endowment for housing is available at https://foundation.santarosa.edu/housing.

Economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has led Santa Rosa Junior College to push back the planned completion of an on-campus residential hall for students by a year.

The longer timeline, now pegged to a fall 2023 opening, will allow the school’s developing partners to seek lower interest rates on bonds that will finance the project and additional contributions to the campus foundation, all of which could help lower student housing costs when the building does open, said SRJC President Frank Chong.

The pause was announced Tuesday by Chong, who said forging ahead now with financing and construction on the $46.5 million project was “not the most prudent thing to do now.”

“We had a very aggressive schedule,” Chong said. “This gives a little more breathing room. We’re still going to proceed.”

“We’re trying to keep costs down … absorb as much as possible,” Chong said. “We’re going to really jump-start our development campaign to try to have community supporters start endowing dorm rooms, as people would endow department chairs or science labs.”

The five-story hall, the first major on-campus housing project for SRJC, will accommodate up to 352 students. It is being paid for largely through funds generated by a private-public partnership with an investment banking company called Stifel.

The decision by the developers to delay financing and construction comes around the time that the school originally planned to begin selling bonds to finance the project. After consulting with Stifel and one of the school’s other partners, a student housing firm called Servitas, SRJC now expects to begin financing in about six months, Chong said.

The junior college went to primarily online-based instruction in March and was the first of the county’s two main higher-education institutions to announce that its campuses would remain closed for in-person instruction through the current academic year.

Student housing has presented another pandemic dilemma for the nation’s colleges. The bulk of students have remained at home or in off-campus housing, but for those who would normally be in dorms, occupancy has been limited to reduce the risk of viral transmission. At Sonoma State University, only 430 students are living on campus this fall ― a fraction of the roughly 3,000 who would normally reside in the dorms.

College administrators are hoping that distribution of the first COVID-19 vaccines will rebuild confidence in a market that in 2020 came to view investments in student housing as high-risk.

“Covid has changed a lot of things,” Chong said. “Once (it’s) in the rear view, we’re more confident that people will be willing to come back.”

Santa Rosa Junior College this year has a student body of about 22,000, down about 3,000 from last fall. Housing costs have been one of the key contributing factors cited by school leaders in a multiyear slide in school enrollment.

About 1,000 students reportedly lost their homes in the 2017 wildfires, and a survey of students from 2018 indicated that 30% of students considered leaving the school after the disaster amid lingering pressure on the housing market.

Pedro Avila, vice president of student services, said that the Student Housing Workgroup surveyed students again in May to gauge their ongoing level of interest in the development, which school leaders have championed especially for low-income students.

While the desire for student housing remained high, he said, students’ preferences regarding the type of their living accommodations shifted.

More students want single-bed rooms, he said, and so they changed the plans for the building to include more of them. In updated plans, about 51% of the rooms available will house a single occupant. About 33% of rooms will house two people, while apartments and suites of varying sizes round out the total.

“We’re trying to meet all of the different needs of students,” Avila said. “Our number one priority is to be able to provide affordable housing.”

Steering donors toward the cause of housing is part of the plan, Avila said. Beyond individual dorm rooms, he said, the building itself could be named for a prominent donor under a decision by the Board of Trustees. Several multipurpose rooms and study rooms could also be named after donors.

Kaiser Permanente recently donated $1 million to the project.

Even with the delay, Santa Rosa Junior College will still likely be one of just a few community colleges in California to provide housing when the project is finished. While Avila said he knows of four or five schools that are exploring plans to do so, only 12 of the state’s 116 community colleges provide on-campus housing.

Helping students out with housing is a way to boost their ability to participate more fully in school, Avila said.

“We know from surveys that students who are wanting to live on campus and have access to affordable housing are also willing to take more classes,” he said. “There is a lack of housing inventory in California and rents have dramatically increased. I think we’re all trying to look at solutions.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation

More information about donating to the endowment for housing is available at https://foundation.santarosa.edu/housing.

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