Feb. 6, 2023
Eric Tompkins had a choice to make. He was 30 years old working as a tutor, coach, and paraeducator, and wanted to make a difference for young people in his community. Despite his ability to mentor students, he faced a significant barrier to reaching economic security: he did not have a college degree. Eric chose to pursue college so he could ultimately become a teacher or a counselor working with young people. But this choice did not come easy. As Eric explained,
“When you go to college you make a lot of sacrifices, especially if you’re older. The sacrifices I had to make were huge. I had to work less, I had less money, I couldn’t get a car that was reliable. I had to get food assistance. I didn’t have a place of my own. I stayed with my grandmother for a little bit, bouncing from place to place. I was living with people, moving around all the time. It was stressful.”
Luckily, Eric found College Housing Northwest (CHNW), an Oregon-based non-profit that owns and operates affordable housing options for college students. Because of CHNW, Eric was able to find stable housing and earn his degree.
But before Eric connected with CHNW, central to his stress was the looming threat of housing insecurity–a phenomenon that is far too common among college students. In 2020, 48 percent of all college students, and 52 percent of community college students, experienced housing insecurity. Students facing housing insecurity have higher rates of anxiety and depression, worse health outcomes, and lower GPAs than their housing secure peers. As Eric expressed,
We make it so hard for people to better themselves that it discourages people from even trying.
Many colleges and universities–particularly community colleges–do not have the necessary resources to build affordable student housing. Most public colleges faced limited resources even before they experienced significant enrollment declines from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inability of colleges to provide students with affordable housing creates substantial problems for students like Eric, particularly when crises arise. According to Bhaktirose Dawdy, the director of Student Basic Needs Initiatives at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon:
“So many students think ‘oh I can make it work, I can sleep in my car,’ but something always happens. They face a crisis, they’re trying to patch it all together…and it doesn’t work.”
Eric’s experience with housing insecurity exemplifies this point. Eric explained that for the first three years of his college experience:
“I was moving every 6 months. Sometimes having to stay with my sister, sometimes having to stay with my cousin, sometimes having to stay with my girlfriend. I’d finally find a place, then have to leave, and be out of luck (again). I (was) working part-time, going to school full-time…In order to keep it all going, to get good grades, I had to sacrifice…I had to cut back on a lot of things, I had no money to save...I couldn’t afford to drive…there were times I had to sleep in my car for the night…It’s embarrassing. And then during the pandemic, that’s when it got really bad…I was always alone in my car. I had to drive to McDonalds to get wifi to do homework. Luckily I could stay with my grandmother for a little bit, but I'm 32 at this point and I don’t want to stay with my grandmother in this cramped space. I didn’t have anyone to talk to…I had to find ways to make it work.”
To try and address the housing crisis facing students like Eric, CHNW owns nearly 600 apartment units across the Portland metro area that they rent at affordable rates. Ryan Sturley, the organization's Director of Real Estate and Development, explained that CHNW serves nearly 1000 students per year and owns and operates all of the properties they rent to students. While the organization has long focused on supporting students' housing needs, Sturley explains in recent years,
“We’ve shifted to say how can we really provide deep affordability for students, particularly community college students because of their rates of basic needs insecurity, and to do this we need fundraising from the state, from local governments, from other funders. We’re trying to create funding streams for student housing because they don’t exist.”
As part of this effort, CHNW launched the Affordable Rents for College Students (ARCS) program, which directly subsidizes students’ rents within the apartments CHNW owns. While CHNW rents typically range between $1,000 and $1,400 per month, through ARCS, the organization subsidizes students’ rents by 50 percent or more. The organization also provides wraparound services in their properties so that students can meet their mental health and basic needs beyond housing. This has created enormous benefits for students like Eric Tompkins. Eric, a recipient of an ARCS subsidized apartment, explained:
“In my senior year…I was in crisis. I had to move out of my grandmother’s place pretty abruptly. I was in a really tough spot, I had nowhere to go. I called a benefits navigator at Portland State and told them about my situation…they introduced me to ARCS. Through ARCS I got subsidized rent, I didn't need to pay any deposit or security check, I was finally able to sign a lease to my own place…I’ve been here by myself since. I’ve been able to focus, relax, and I got a full-year lease so I don’t have to worry…It helped me with my mental health, I got that peace of mind. It helped me with my homework because I could focus. My grades got way better. It helped me with my relationships because I wasn’t stressed all the time…It’s really a blessing.”
CHNW has been an instrumental part of a coalition, along with nearby colleges and universities including Mt. Hood Community College and Portland State University, to provide the region’s college students with affordable housing. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the coalition has jolted into action to provide as many students as possible with secure, affordable housing.
CHNW convenes multiple groups of people to ensure their college and community partnerships are deeply embedded through their work. CHNW meets regularly with people who make referrals into their program, with government relations directors from colleges to work on legislative pushes together, and folks from college foundations so they can strive for collaborative funding. This has led to success for students and has started to build momentum on the state and local level for additional resources and policy changes that can actually solve the housing crisis facing college students. But, CHNW still struggles to access the necessary resources to help address the scope of the problem across Oregon. As Pam Blumenthal, the director of the ARCS program, explains, “We’re still fighting the battle of getting people to understand college students’ needs. We can…mitigate chronic homelessness if we can help get folks a higher education credential…so what we’re doing is very upstream.”
State, local, and federal governments need to invest in initiatives like this to solve the scope of the housing crisis facing students. But absent that investment, CHNW and its partners provide a successful model to help students access affordable housing. Colleges and community-based organizations across the country can look to the success of CHNW as they strive to build solutions to address student housing insecurity in their own communities. If colleges and nonprofits can work together to pool resources to provide students with affordable housing, more students will be able to realize the benefits of higher education, colleges will increase enrollment and retention of the students they serve, and nonprofits will help drive economic growth throughout their broader communities.
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