Affording college in Oregon is difficult for most, but low-income students face challenges on numerous levels. Some students are so determined to graduate that they’re willing to be homeless just to pay for college expenses.
Amethyst has been on her own since her mother kicked her out of her house at the age of 15. We’re not using her last name to protect her privacy. After graduating high school in 2019, she enrolled in Lane Community College in Eugene to study paramedicine.
Throughout high school and during part of her time in college she experienced housing and food insecurity.
“One, when you're having to pay for college by yourself, you're gonna lose a lot of money,” said Amethyst. “And then you have to pay for your housing, and then you have to pay for your food and you're not able to make a livable wage, because you know, you're still trying to pursue your education. Like it seems impossible.”
Even when housing becomes available, low-income students can face a lot of barriers to be approved as renters. Many landlords require security deposits and application fees up front, and hefty income guarantees. And students may not have someone who can cosign the lease for them.
Amethyst said it can be difficult to figure out how to meet your basic needs while navigating higher education. For some students whose backs are up against the wall, they are willing to be homeless just to pay for college expenses.
14 out of 17 Oregon community colleges participated in the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s #RealCollege survey in 2019.
According to the survey, 52% of Oregon students were housing insecure in the previous year and 20% of respondents were homeless. Nationally, 56% of respondents were housing insecure and 17% of respondents were homeless.
Oregon’s high rate of homeless students is partially due to the fact that low-income housing can be difficult to find in the state.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2020 Out of Reach study shows Oregon has the 13th highest housing wage in the nation. That means an individual making minimum wage in Oregon has to work 81 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom rental home.
That workload is unsustainable for anyone. It is especially challenging for college students going to school full-time.
Alison McIntosh is the policy and communications director for Neighborhood Partnerships in Portland. The group convenes the Oregon Housing Alliance, a legislative advocacy coalition that works to create policies to provide all Oregonians with safe, stable and affordable housing.
She said one of the reasons Oregon students are experiencing housing insecurity is because of the economic recession of 2008.
“Unfortunately, incomes have stayed pretty flat while the cost of rent has just gone up really dramatically,” said McIntosh. “In the last recession, the rate of us building housing really slowed [in Oregon]. And so what happened in kind of like 2013-2014, was you started to see really low vacancy rates.”
McIntosh said the aftermath of the recession also led to communities in central and southern Oregon having vacancy rates of less than 1%.
When you’re in a market with low vacancy rates and low housing supply, landlords can charge more money. And with few housing options, some people will continue to pay those high prices. Since income levels haven’t increased in tandem with rent, low income residents end up having to choose between housing and other basic needs.
There’s Not Enough Emergency Housing
For Myrtle, housing options haven’t been easy to come by because she struggles to find units she can afford, but also because of her age. The 45-year-old is a fourth year horticulture major at Oregon State University in Corvallis. When she was looking for housing, 20-year-old college students weren’t too keen on living with Myrtle.
She couldn't find a roommate and she didn't have savings. So Myrtle was making plans to live in her car.
But when she contacted OSU’s basic needs navigator Miguel Arellano Sanchez to figure out where other houseless students park their cars, she was immediately connected to the university’s 11-year-old emergency housing program.
“And I was just floored, completely floored,” she said. “I didn't even think that I would have this kind of safety net, that it was ever available and that I would ever need it."
The program not only gave her a place to stay for up to a month as she transitioned into permanent housing, it also provided a sense of safety that she didn’t expect to receive.
“You can't continue with school without housing. You need that basic level of security in order to focus on school. Because then you can relax, then you can let your mind focus when you know that you have all of these things secured, you feel safe.”
Out of Oregon’s seven public universities, only OSU and Portland State University have designated emergency housing units that are at no cost for students, and last longer than a few days. At PSU, the dean of student life can place students in the university hotel for a few days. In partnership with First United Methodist Church in Portland, PSU also created a student shelter in March, known as The Landing. It provides free housing for students for up to an entire term. The space currently serves eight students, but was designed to serve more once pandemic restrictions ease.
Some universities, such as the University of Oregon, have created a student crisis fund, and students can use that money to pay for a temporary hotel stay. The average amount of assistance is only $700, however, so the funding only goes so far.
Universities could have a better idea of the number of students who are facing housing insecurities, and how to best serve them, if they conducted need-based surveys. But of the seven universities, only PSU formally tracks students experiencing homelessness.
Jacen Greene is the Assistant Director of the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at PSU. He said there is no excuse for institutions not to track this data and work to address student needs.
“There are so many ways to develop and implement a survey,” said Greene. “It's not that expensive to do for a university. So, to be honest, I really don't think there's any reason for a college or university not to survey their students. I think the best thing that anyone could do is just listen to their students. Listen to the voices and experiences of their students.”
Myrtle is now living on campus at OSU’s greenhouse, where she helps tend plants partly in return for shelter. But her housing solution is only temporary. She was told she’ll have to leave the property by the end of the summer. Myrtle plans to rent a trailer from a friend, but she’s still on the hunt to find an affordable place to hook it up.
Situations like Myrtle’s are why affordable, long-term housing solutions are still needed for many college students in Oregon.
No Simple Solutions
But long-term solutions are tricky.
In 2019, Oregon invested roughly $200 million in building affordable housing for low income community members. But current federal policy says students are not eligible to live in affordable housing that is funded with low income housing tax credits.
A federal bill was introduced in 2019 that would amend regulations around the low income tax credit, and provide college students experiencing homelessness with access to affordable housing. Student housing advocates have said this could have the largest impact on providing affordable housing. But, even then, there’s just not enough affordable housing available.
A house bill currently in committee in the Oregon legislature would create a $4.5 million pilot program to provide long-term rental assistance for youth who are 25-years-old and under who are — or have recently experienced — homelessness or have been under state care, either incarcerated or received substance abuse or mental health treatment. If passed, the funding would support the project in three communities — one urban, one rural and one coastal area.
But the bill doesn't specifically focus on college students.
Partnerships With Housing Providers Could Help
McIntosh with Neighborhood Partnerships believes the local, state and federal governments should not only fund more affordable housing, but also provide more rental assistance. Which is exactly what College Housing Northwest is doing.
The non-profit is one of a few student housing providers in the country, and offers housing to students at 15-20% below market prices. Even with the price reduction, however, rent could still be upwards of $1,000. So in July of 2020, the group launched a new initiative known as Affordable Rent for College Students or ARCS.
Modeled after a program in Tacoma, Washington, ARCS is a pilot program that has provided 50% monthly rental assistance to 20 students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Students at Portland Community College, PSU, New Avenues for Youth, Linn Benton Community College and Mt. Hood Community College are currently involved in this program.
According to the results of a February student survey, 79% of students involved in the ARCS program said housing insecurity affected their ability to do well in school before starting the program. 47% of students said they wouldn’t have enrolled in college if they didn’t have this housing option.
Ryan Sturley is the development manager at College Housing Northwest. He said this data only highlights the need for more student housing assistance.
“A lot of students out there have to choose between affording housing or even going to college in the first place,” said Sturley. “And I think the fact that almost half said, ‘No, I wouldn't have been able to even enroll if I hadn't received housing assistance,’ to me, kind of proves that idea that there are lots and lots of students out there that just don't go to college because the housing and other needs are just too expensive.”
A bill in the Oregon state senate would expand the ARCS program by awarding grants to non-profits that provide affordable housing to university students.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Education Writers Association.