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Editorial: Housing relief 101

“What would I give to go back and live in a dorm with a meal plan again” – from the musical, ‘Avenue Q’

Amid all the talk about how skyrocketing rents prices are exacerbating the housing crisis, a certain demographic of the precariously housed is often overlooked: one of meager income, limited education and devoid of many of the life skills necessary to eke out an existence in the high-cost-living North Bay.

That’s right, I’m talking about young, undergraduate college students.

You know -- those nascent post-adolescents who think spinach dip is in the vegetable group; that Cinema Studies is a viable career path; and insist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s description of “the great unwashed” wasn’t referring to them.

And perhaps truest of all: Those who’d rather live in a Potrero Hill flophouse than spend another night in the same bedroom with the “Owls of Ga’Hoole” window curtains they’ve had since they were 10.

And given the amount of local high school grads who enroll in Santa Rosa Junior College, that demographic around here is sizable. Roughly half of all Sonoma County high school graduates become college undergraduates at Santa Rosa Junior College; around 40 percent of Sonoma Valley High School grads say they plan to attend SRJC.

For the past 20 years or so, that meant local 18- to 21-year-old SRJC students were either stuck at home for a few more years or spending the bulk of their barrista earnings splitting rent with a couple of roomies at an apartment in Petaluma.

As enticing as those options sound, the steep rise in rents of recent years is rendering the more attractive of those options – a low-earning 19-year-old being able to afford an apartment – damn near impossible.

All of which makes Santa Rosa Junior College’s recent announcement of potential plans to build student housing at its Santa Rosa campus all the more intriguing.

For nearly 40 years, SRJC had offered student housing in its former Kent Hall on Mendocino Avenue. But about 15 years ago, the college replaced the dorm with student-services portables. That was in 2003, when the late ‘90s tech bubble had popped and North Bay rents, while inching higher, were still within reach of modest-income residents. In other words, a bit of Doyle Scholarship savings here, a bit of part-time-job-earnings there, and most full-time community college students could afford to live off campus on their own. But not so much today, when even a studio apartment runs well out of the reach of most college students. Suddenly community college housing is sounding a lot more alluring – at least more alluring than Mom and Dad’s house.

According to a study commissioned last year by the junior college, of 1,735 students surveyed, 86 percent responded that they are interested in student housing, and 50 percent said they would enroll full time at the school if student housing were available.

The research firm, SCION, also found that after the fires, 7 percent of students surveyed reported they planned to leave SRJC and an additional 30 percent were considering leaving due to cost of housing or housing insecurity.

Those numbers in particular seemed to catch the eye of SRJC officials who said that if they proceed with plans for student housing, they would target having about 350 beds on offer as early as the fall semester of 2022. If and when that happens, SRJC would join the nearly 25 percent of community colleges in the U.S. which offer student housing, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

SRJC Trustee Jeff Kunde, the Sonoma Valley representative on the community college board, said the goal of the plan is to offer students “affordable, quality housing.”

“This comes at a time where housing is needed, and also (an) increase student population is needed at the school for financial sustainability,” Kunde told the Index-Tribune last week.

It’s also another important step in providing greater access to higher education – which is being viewed less as a privilege these days than a right – without the steep financial burdens that have infamously dogged so many past student-loan recipients throughout their adulthoods. (Furthering that, last year’s state Assembly passage of AB 19 – aka the California Collage Promise – will allow SRJC to cover the enrollment fees for first-time students with full-time course loads.)

Santa Rosa Junior College officials should pursue their plans for student housing, not only on basis of student need, but on the basis of county need, as well. Because, while house-poor undergraduates are hardly the face of the local housing crisis, they are certainly one of its components. And in a housing situation like Sonoma’s, relief for one is relief for all.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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