A new Cal Poly program seeks to help university students navigate San Luis Obispo’s challenging real estate market.
The Off-Campus Housing Support Program is intended to help students find homes they can afford in SLO through a variety of different tactics, Cal Poly dean of students Joy Pedersen said.
“At the dean of students’ office, we’ve heard year after year how difficult it is for students to find housing and how hard it is when they get rent increases,” Pederson, adding that it’s particularly challenging for non-traditional students such as veterans and parents to find housing.
Those complaints have only increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
While the Off-Campus Housing Support Program was approved for funding at the end of the past fiscal year, Pedersen said, it’s just now getting off the ground.
Sarah Bacio, the Cal Poly program’s newly-appointed coordinator, said it will need time to develop. The specific methods the university will use to help students seeking homes in the community have not been established yet.
“We’re still building the car as we’re driving it,” Bacio said. “We have a lot of really great ideas.”
The university has already established one means of assistance: the educated renter certificated program.
Students can enroll in an online Canvas course to learn about good renter practices.
“There are some select properties who have opted into taking that into consideration and helping students be more competitive for their complexes,” Bacio said. “That has already existed for years.”
Currently, the Off-Campus Housing Support Program is mostly concerned with assessing students’ needs, she said.
According to Cal Poly’s 2018 Basic Needs Task Force Report, 12% of the university’s student body has experienced some form of homelessness during their time at the university.
“Cal Poly students who experience food and housing insecurity report worse physical health, mental health and lower GPAs than students who do not,” the report said. “Established research has also confirmed that hunger and homelessness among young people impairs cognition, memory, academic performance, mental health and social well-being.”
This problem has likely worsened since the 2018 report, Pedersen said, noting that the coronanavirus pandemic further lowered SLO’s stock of available rentals.
“When students started returning turning to campus, we noticed that the inventory was even lower,” Pedersen said. “We think that’s because many people moved to the area to work remotely, and that puts additional strain (on the housing market), as well as inflation.”
Bacio said she hopes to conduct focus groups with the student body to determine the best way to go about providing aid.
The university is also exploring offering financial aid for students who struggle to meet the high rent costs and down payments required by most SLO rental companies, Pedersen said.
“This is just a baby idea at this point, but we could create some kind of (financial) pool that students could be eligible for to help with those first month’s rent (and) security deposit,” Pedersen said.
Other tactics the university may explore involve grants, scholarships or other funding sources, Pedersen said.
“Whether it’s actual dollars or it’s more of an agreement or MOU (memorandum of understanding) that we’re able to make with financial aid or property management companies, we’re looking at creative ways to address the financial aspect of renting,” Pedersen said.
The financial side of renting is only one part of the university’s plans.
Bacio said forming better relationships with the rental community will also factor into the program’s goals.
“A lot of it is going to be relationship building with the community,” she said. “It’s going to be thinking about community events with our students that are out in the community thinking about like community cleanups and really helping folks kind of build that trust with each other.”
The Off-Campus Housing Support Program is funded by so-called student success fees, which are collected quarterly alongside tuition from all students attending the university, according to Cal Poly’s tuition website.
In 2022, the student success fee was $316.35 per semester, according to the site.
“There aren’t simple answers to solve housing challenges, but I’m really excited that Sarah (Bacio) is here to help address some of those barriers, especially for our students, so that they can be in a more competitive and educated applicants and renters in the community,” Pedersen said.