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A freshman dorm room at San Francisco State University.
Photo courtesy of San Francisco State University

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Bay Area students face housing insecurity after coronavirus-related school closures

Lack of university support and legal protections leave students high and dry

On Saturday, March 14, Stanford University junior Daniella Caluza scrambled to pack up all of her belongings. Caluza, along with the 97 percent of Stanford undergraduates who live on campus, were informed the day before that they had to leave their campus homes. They had just five days—until Wednesday, March 18—to move out entirely.

The last-minute move wasn’t the only thing on Caluza’s mind. As the co-president of Stanford’s First-Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), Caluza was busy securing housing for students without anywhere else to go. In a matter of days, Caluza and her co-president Kiara Bacasen matched 40 students in need with alumni willing to host them. The operation was powered entirely by solidarity and Google Forms.

Unlike some of her peers in FLIP, Caluza gets to return to a stable housing situation. She drove back to her family home in Stockton, where she’s now completing online classes next quarter in a two-bedroom apartment housing five people.

In the face of statewide shelter-in-place ordinances, put into effect in response to the pandemic, universities faced difficult decisions: While closing dormitories would limit the spread of disease, it also meant evicting thousands of students from housing.

“The highly communal nature of our undergraduate residential and dining spaces makes them fundamentally incompatible with the concept of social distancing,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote on March 13.

Stanford did not respond to a request for further comment.

Evictions served with little warning are a major economic burden on students. Arranging storage and transportation at the last minute costs hundreds of dollars—more for international flights.

Other students can’t return home at all. These include students who rely on local jobs to provide for themselves or their families, LGBTQ students who’ve been rejected by their families, or international students worried about the status of their visas.

Results of a survey conducted by college affordability non-profit RISE about the effects of COVID-19 school closures on college students.
Source: RISE

Stanford isn’t the only school that has closed dormitories in response to shelter-in-place orders.

Most Bay Area universities, including the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and California State University East Bay have taken the same action. Most schools are offering students refunds in the form of prorated rent and allowing students in need to apply to stay on campus on a case-by-case basis.

At USF, students were notified that they’d have to evacuate in the middle of spring break. Joseph Smooke, a former staffer at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, helped a family friend move out of the USF dorms. The student, who was visiting family in Boston when he received the eviction notice, was forced to fly back to San Francisco on a Monday, then return to his family home in Boston before online classes resumed that same Wednesday.

Smooke thinks closing dormitories was the right choice when it comes to public health, but said it was challenging to abide by social distancing orders during the move.

“There were these big blue bins that people used to shuttle things back and forth. We were all touching them … We weren’t really sure what we should do or not do,” said Smooke.

Other universities took a different approach to addressing the crisis. The University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and San José State University have kept dorms open, but are adjusting communal dining hall services to prevent the spread of disease. UC Berkeley was also one of the first schools in the nation to offer students refunds for the remainder of the year’s housing, a policy other universities have since adopted.

Rigel Robinson, a Berkeley city councilor and 2018 Berkeley graduate, applauds UC Berkeley’s efforts.

“I’ve been really grateful to see UC Berkeley leading the country’s higher education community in response to this crisis,” said Robinson.

Just 27 percent of Berkeley students live on campus, and the majority of those are freshmen. UC Berkeley student government leader Varsha Sarveshwar said that while many freshmen don’t have strong ties to the university community yet and chose to return home, having the choice has been important for marginalized students.

“Most of them are choosing to go home, but that’s a choice they can make,” said Sarveshwar.

Students moving into University of San Francisco housing at the beginning of the school year using the “big blue bins.”
Photo courtesy of Delta Zeta Sorority at USF

Students living in university-owned housing don’t have the same legal rights as their peers who live off-campus. In California, landlords must give tenants at least 30-days notice if they’re being evicted without fault. This stands in stark contrast to the timeframe, in many cases less than a week, that students were allotted to move out of their housing.

Many tenants outside of university-owned housing are also covered by a policy called just cause for eviction. Just cause forbids landlords from evicting tenants without providing a valid reason, which could include non-payment of rent, violating the terms of the lease, or breaking the law. The policy is intended to prevent landlords from retaliating against tenants.

Tenants living in university housing have a smaller bill of rights. Like all California tenants, students in on-campus housing are legally entitled to habitable housing with heating and door locks, according to legal site Find Law. Students are also covered under the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability, or other protected classes. Other rights, however, are provided only at the discretion of the university.

*Some restrictions apply.
Infographic by Curbed SF with data from FindLaw.

This year the California legislature passed a groundbreaking piece of tenants rights legislation. AB 1482, authored by Assemblymember David Chiu, extended rent caps and just cause for eviction protections to most tenants across the state. But the bill also excludes tenants in university-owned housing.

“I think most tenant protection bills exclude student housing, because student housing operates very differently from regular housing and is treated differently under the law,” said Chiu’s communications director, Jennifer Kwart.

One difference between university-owned housing and other rental properties is that most students pay rent for their entire semester upfront, rather than paying month-to-month. Most tenant laws also relate to tenants living in housing for more than a year, but students leave their housing at the end of the nine-month academic year. Furthermore, unlike other housing-related bills in the California legislature, bills related to dormitories are governed by the legislature’s higher education committee. The state also has less jurisdiction over private universities than public ones.

Awareness is growing in the legislature that students especially are struggling with housing costs and homelessness, according to Kwart. College students are leading the call for change.

UC Berkeley students worked with Assemblymember Nancy Skinner to advocate for the passage of SB 1227, which expedites the construction of student housing. The bill passed in 2018.

The San José State Student Homeless Alliance is backing AB 1314, authored by Assemblymember Jose Medina. AB 1314 would extend the Cal Grant financial aid program to allow for its use on non-tuition expenses including housing cost. The bill has been sitting in the Senate committee on education since June of 2019.

Max Lubin, the founder of college affordability advocacy group RISE, told Curbed SF that in the past, students haven’t been considered priority populations for housing due to misconceptions about who attends universities.

“Students aren’t considered a needy population,” said Lubin. “We’re operating off of a lot of stereotypes about who college students are.”

Lubin often works with community college students as part of his advocacy with RISE. While one in ten UC Berkeley students experience housing insecurity at some point during their college experience, a 2018 study from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 46 percent of community college students experienced housing security in the last year. Most community college students aren’t offered housing through their university, but the loss of on-campus jobs has still affected many students’ ability to pay rent.

And increasingly, four-year universities are admitting more first-generation and low-income students, but they don’t always have the resources in place to support them.

“There’s a lot of movements on campus right now asking admin to listen to [first-generation and low income] students,” said Stanford’s Caluza. “The coronavirus is where it starts to shine. You really see where admin is not meeting students’ needs.”

Where universities are failing students, the community is chipping in.

Stanford activists listen to a teach-in at the Columbae co-op.
Photo by Zoe Brownwood / Fossil Free Stanford

Jacob Kupperman, a student staffer at Stanford’s Columbae co-op, is one of the lead organizers of the Stanford Student Fund. The fund started out of Columbae’s house dues and has rapidly evolved. To date, they’ve raised over $50,000 on GoFundMe and provided financial support to 1,000 low-income students.

Caluza and Bacasen have seen an outpouring of support from the community in response to their call for solidarity housing. At this point they’ve had more alumni volunteer to house students than they have students in need. This has allowed them to support some students outside of the Stanford community.

“While Stanford has had a pretty solid support network, there are students who don’t have that,” said Caluza.

Lubin’s RISE has partnered with other organizations, including The Hope Center at Temple University, to provide their own student relief fund for students impacted by the pandemic. So far they’ve seen over 100 applicants. Emergency housing support is the greatest need, according to Lubin.

Though community support has been substantial, advocates can’t help but wonder why universities aren’t doing more.

As a student staffer responsible for conveying information to his residents, Kupperman was frustrated with Stanford’s lack of communication.

“Stanford has been incredibly inconsistent and disorganized,” said Kupperman.

Though she acknowledges the university faces challenges in preventing the spread of disease, Caluza is frustrated that students are consistently left to self-advocate.

“I shouldn’t have to try to find housing for 40 people while at the same time trying to pack up my room and make sure I get home,” said Caluza.

As for Sacramento, legislators are currently taking recess to abide by social distancing mandates. The legislature will reconvene in May, at which point they’ll have an opportunity to provide relief to tenants. San Francisco representatives Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Phil Ting are currently working on AB 828, which would extend tenant protections during the state of emergency.

It’s unclear what the appetite of legislators will be to include students in university-owned housing in these relief efforts.

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