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HomeEducationCSU’s housing grants aim to prevent rent crises among students

CSU’s housing grants aim to prevent rent crises among students

Credit: Monterey Bay/Flickr

CSU Monterey Bay students move into campus dorms in August 2021.

Andrea Ross, a graduate student at San Diego State University, already was worried last year about how she’d make rent payments for the studio apartment she had rented in her first semester.

Then disaster hit when her car suddenly needed a costly repair that ran into the thousands.

Luckily, she had somewhere to turn for help. Ross returned to the support network she’d found during her short time at the San Diego campus: She visited the Basic Needs Center and asked for help.

Within days, she received a direct deposit for a $1,000 grant that helped ease the housing stress while she figured out what to do with her car.

Andrea Ross, a graduate student at San Diego State University, faced financial challenges early in her first year.

“That housing grant really saved me,” said Ross, who until recently lived and worked in Santa Barbara where she completed her bachelor’s degree two years ago.

The money she received came from a recent augmentation to the California State University’s base funding from the state’s general fund. This new $10 million has been shared across all 23 CSU campuses and is expected to be renewed annually.

Each campus has been asked to reserve at least half of its allocation specifically for housing grants to students through financial aid offices this year. The other half may be used for the same purpose, but it can also be used for other basic needs, such as food or transportation. With nearly 477,000 students systemwide and many in high-rent cities, the U anticipates no lack of demand for the funds.

The Affordable Housing Grant Program, as the university system has named it, is part of the CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025, a 10-year plan that has sought to increase graduation rates and reduce equity gaps in degree attainment among students.

Each CSU campus was allocated a portion of the $10 million based on the proportion of students whose families’ incomes are low enough that they are not expected to contribute anything to the students’ tuition and other costs.

This funding is different from CSU’s Higher Education Student Housing Program, which will fund construction projects for new housing on CSU campuses.

“What we want to create in our campuses is living-learning communities, and what we do not want to happen is that students have to make a choice between either living or learning,” said Dilcie Perez, the CSU associate vice chancellor of student affairs, equity and belonging. “We want them to be able to do both.”

At San Diego State University, the average amount that students receive under this grant program is $900, and the maximum is $1,000. Chelsea Payne, director of the school’s Economic Crisis Response Team, estimates that more than 500 students could receive these grants during the current school year, depending on the need and grant amounts. So far, 128 students have received it.

Payne’s team often meets students who can typically cover their living expenses but can’t pay for any unplanned expenses. For example, she said, a student might be able to pay their rent every month but face a challenge affording the security deposit required for a new apartment. This type of financial need can sometimes lead to dropping out of school, homelessness or needing to take an additional job.

The grant program aims to prevent students from reaching that crisis point altogether.

“This funding is allowing us to be more proactive in helping students mitigate that emergency, which I’m so appreciative of because once theyhit that emergency state, it affects so much more than their finances,” said Payne, who leads the basic needs team at both the main San Diego State campus and its satellite campus in Imperial Valley.

Each campus decides its own process for distributing the grants to students. Outreach also differs from campus to campus.

Part of that outreach at San Diego State has included identifying students with outstanding on-campus housing fees. For those who live off-campus, Payne’s team is spreading the word about the aid via social media and email newsletters. Faculty and staff play key roles too.

“Oftentimes as a faculty member, you’re in the classroom and you’ll notice patterns: a student who’s come into class a little bit late, leaving early or other challenges,” said J. Luke Wood, vice president for student affairs and campus diversity and chief diversity officer at San Diego State. “These pressures of food insecurity, housing insecurity, transportation concerns, employment barriers, they oftentimes will manifest in that academic environment as well and impacts their learning and development.”

The affordable housing grants are meant to be one-time funds, but students often receive other additional services and help. At San Diego State, for example, a student who requests any type of assistance will get their finances reviewed to see whether they might qualify for other aid. That could mean lower-cost internet, a gas card, or signing up for CalFresh, the state’s food benefits program, among other things.

“It’s not just about providing $900 and hoping that they’re OK,” Payne said. “It’s really tied to the case management services that we have in our program … and that there is a plan in place so that we can assist them to really create stability and not just a short-term fix.”

This process is precisely how Ross was able to quickly access the housing grant.

She’d initially moved into a studio apartment with a monthly rent of $1,875, an amount she knew she’d be pressed to afford. At the time, her semester was about to begin, and it was the best place she could find.

But during her social work program’s orientation, the graduate adviser mentioned the Basic Needs Center. Ross reached out hoping the center could help her pay for rent, and she soon received a grant funded by the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, a Covid-related funding stream.

Then, when her car failed later in the semester, she knew exactly where to turn to for help. By then, the new $10 million allocated for housing grants had been disbursed to her campus and she was eligible for the additional $1,000 grant.

With the majority of her rent covered, her father was able to step in to support financially with her car.

“If my dad wasn’t financially supportive, I literally don’t know what I would’ve done. That was a little bit scary,” she said. “But it makes me think about people that don’t have parents who can financially support them and what that would look like.”

Ross now works a few hours each week at the Basic Needs Center as theCalFresh outreach graduate assistant helping other students learn about their eligibility for CalFresh.

She also used the knowledge she gained at the Basic Needs Center to find more affordable housing.

Last month, she moved into a less expensive apartment that costs her $1,500. The nearly $400 difference in rent makes a significant difference in her student budget. She’s beginning the second semester of her three-year program and already feels much more prepared.

“The stress of moving, leaving friends, coming out of my comfort zone — all of that stress was very, very present,” said Ross, regarding her move to San Diego. “So having that little bit of stress relieved with that support financially, it made all the difference.”

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