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Sonoma State University could purchase property for employee housing

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Sonoma State University employees could see nearly 100 affordable housing units available for rent near campus next year as part of a broader effort to attract talent and house half of its students by 2040.

SSU President Judy Sakaki next month will present to the California State University Board of Trustees a proposal to purchase a multi-million dollar property to primarily house entry-level employees.

“I’m hopeful that they will approve and help us secure more workforce housing,” Sakaki said at a Press Democrat Editorial Board meeting Wednesday. “In the long term, this would help us maintain the quality of the campus and its workforce.”

The university already is in negotiations to purchase the property currently being built about 20 to 30 minutes from the Rohnert Park campus, SSU spokesman Paul Gullixson said. The exact size, location or cost of the employee housing project was not disclosed.

If approved by CSU trustees, the project would be financed with a bond that would be paid back with rent, Gullixson said.

About 1 in 5 job candidates offered a position at the university turned it down because of high housing costs, Sakaki said, and last year’s destructive firestorm that destroyed thousands of homes, including hers, only exacerbated the housing crisis.

She said the university explored several options for additional employee and student housing, including working with the Housing Land Trust of Sonoma County to secure homes for some employees.

Currently, SSU owns 10 townhomes for employees to rent within walking distance of campus, just off of East Cotati Avenue. The university hired 18 new faculty members this school year, and Sakaki said for many access to the townhomes was one of the reasons they came. Some even chose to reduce housing costs by sharing a townhome with their colleagues.

But it’s not nearly enough to meet housing demands, Sakaki said.

Another option considered for employee housing was property owned by the university east of Petaluma Hill Road, but it’s zoned for agricultural use. The process of changing zoning and building house on the property could take at least five years, Sakaki said.

“We don’t have that time. It will change the nature and basis of the university if we’re not able to bring the talent that we want,” she said. “We’re feeling some urgency around it.”

Sakaki also envisions more students living on campus in the future. About 30 percent of the university’s 9,300 students live in residential suites and apartments on the west and southeast sides of campus.

Her goal is to have half of all students living on campus by 2040.

The first phase of that plan is to build 400 to 600 dormitories for freshmen near the Zinfandel Village suites, possibly by 2020.

Currently, 98 percent of the 3,200 on-campus housing units are occupied, the majority by freshmen. Average on-campus housing costs are $13,200 annually, which includes a meal plan.

“We want to keep it very affordable,” Sakaki said. “If (students) don’t have a comfortable, affordable place to live, then they’re not really going to be able to really focus on their studies.”

Additional freshman dorms would allow more transfer students to move into the existing apartments and suites, Sakaki said.

The university hasn’t had new student housing built since the fall of 2009, with the completion of Tuscany Village, a community of 1,500-square-foot townhomes that share a pool with the Beaujolais Village.

This fall was the first time Sonoma State guaranteed on-campus housing for any of its 1,793 freshmen, as long as they applied by April. The vast majority — 1,611 freshmen — came from out of Sonoma County.

The housing proposals come at a time when major housing developments are forging ahead in Rohnert Park. The University District, north of the campus, ultimately will have 1,645 single-family units, with 300 homes expected to be completed by the end of the year. Just south of Rohnert Park Expressway, San Francisco-based Laulima Development is proposing to build by 2020 a 32-acre mixed-use development that includes 415 housing units.

“By creating more housing on campus, we then free up housing in the community for others.” Gullixson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.