Homeless at Humboldt? Inside the Looming Student Housing Crisis at Cal Poly Humboldt.

After Humboldt State University became California's latest polytechnic institute, applications skyrocketed, and enrollment is set to grow fast. But where will the university house these students?
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  • The administration at Cal Poly Humboldt recently announced that first-time students at the school will get priority for on-campus housing.
  • Only 600 spots on-campus will be reserved for returning students.
  • An additional 350 beds will also be available for students at nearby hotels.
  • In a 2018 study, 19% of students reported being housing insecure.

Gerardo Hernandez was "shocked" and "upset" when he heard the news: California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt (Cal Poly Humboldt) will be offering very little on-campus housing to returning students for the 2023-2024 school year.

In anticipation of record enrollment, the university is giving first-time students priority for on-campus housing next year, leaving only 600 beds on campus for returning students and incoming transfers.

Cal Poly Humboldt has also reserved an additional 350 "bridge housing" beds at nearby motels, but that still leaves thousands of its students to fend for themselves in Arcata, Calif., a community with limited affordable housing.

Hernandez told BestColleges that among his main concerns is transportation, especially for students with disabilities.

"There were also lots of students coming to me, wondering if they could afford these off-campus hotels by the university or even live off campus," the second-year political science major said. "Some of them are considering either dropping out or transferring."

Cal Poly Humboldt is hardly the first California public institution to deal with housing shortages, but the causes of the college's woes are unique: a projected massive increase in enrollment at the school that currently has about 5,700 students.

Located some 275 miles north of San Francisco, Humboldt State University in January 2022 was designated by the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees as the state's third polytechnic university. The school changed its name to California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt and received a windfall of $458 million in funding from the state legislature.

Interest in the university followed: As of March 2, Cal Poly Humboldt has admitted 16,506 students for the fall 2023 semester, compared to 9,953 students admitted in fall 2022.

The projected enrollment boom has forced the university to look for "creative solutions" to its housing shortage. For instance, the school has said it will apply financial aid to bridge housing at the local Comfort Inn, Motel 6, and Super 8 motels. The school is also considering housing students on a barge in Arcata Bay.

"Housing has long been a challenge in this area for students and community members," the Cal Poly Humboldt's housing FAQ webpage reads. "The off-campus residences available this next year are more than the University has ever offered, even when its enrollment was at an all-time high in 2015."

Applications for housing opened for returning students on Feb. 23. Students will be notified if the university has availability for them to live on campus by May 31.

Students, Parents Voice Concerns With Housing Plan

Student safety at Cal Poly Humboldt's "bridge housing" sites is a huge concern for students and their parents.

Ashley Calkins, a third-year political science major at the school, told BestColleges that she previously worked at a hotel near campus and thinks these businesses don't have adequate facilities to keep students safe.

"There is a wide array of things that can go wrong," she said.

The hotels will be managed by university housing staff and have student resident advisors (RAs) and professional staff at each location, according to the university. Still, Calkins is concerned about training hotel employees to deal with issues that arise.

For instance, Calkins said she witnessed how a power outage impacts staff at the hotel regardless of how well-trained they are.

"Even though Humboldt will have staff members present, they're not going to have the entire hotel trained in how to deal with students," she said. "I know that if I was still working at a hotel and I had a bunch of students staying there, I would be [not prepared] to deal with a lot of issues that RAs face like drug use and Title IX allegations."

Johanna Smith, a parent of a first-year student at Cal Poly Humboldt told BestColleges that she and other parents felt "betrayed" by the administration's decision.

"We really feel like we were sold a bill of goods," she said. "We all went to orientation. The entire administration sat on chairs in front of us in the auditorium and told us our students would have access to student housing all four years they were on campus. They didn't guarantee it, but they said they had access."

Smith started a petition demanding that the school does not increase enrollment if it doesn't have facilities to properly house its student body. So far, it has more than 4,500 signatures from parents, students, and community members.

Smith said that she does not blame Cal Poly Humboldt staff and faculty, but rather the administration and the CSU system as a whole.

"I don't want to see Cal Poly Humboldt fail at all. I want them to thrive because I think they're worth it," Smith said. "I think they're an amazing part of California. And I'm excited about the Cal Poly designation. There are [just] ways to go about it that makes sense and don't hurt students."

Students Take Action

Both Hernandez and Calkins are part of Cal Poly Humboldt's student government, the Associated Students Board of Directors, which is currently considering a resolution that requests that the administration improve communication with students on the interim housing plans.

The resolution likewise asks that "the cost of housing be adjusted to account for the lessened conditions for continuing students."

"The goal [is] overall to demand from the administrators to revisit and reevaluate the housing options they're providing to the current student body, and to try to focus on the housing insecurities overall so that no students go homeless," Hernandez said.

But the Associated Students Board of Directors is also concerned with the impact that the administration's plan will have on Arcata, the town in which the university is located.

"The community already has an issue with Humboldt students … Housing [is] already a massive issue, and to see Humboldt pushing these students out into the community to find housing, it's going to get worse," Calkins said. "A lot of landlords are already starting to raise their prices. People are already desperately looking for places to live [next year]."

A 2018 study found that 19% of Humboldt students reported being housing insecure at least once in the last 12 months, almost double the CSU rate of 10.9%. Additionally, 34.7% of people living in Arcata have reported living in poverty, according to the U.S. census.

Cal Poly Humboldt has been "actively working to secure more student housing for years," according to its housing page. While the transition to a polytechnic school will increase enrollment, some of the hundreds of millions in state funds will go to build more student housing, including a new residence hall that is expected to open in 2025 with 1,000 more beds.

"The general availability of housing is [an] obvious concern and presents a challenge for many college students and their communities across California. At Cal Poly Humboldt, one of the ways we are addressing that challenge is by building more campus housing … But this takes time, and we're committed to providing safe, affordable short-term (bridge) housing in the meantime," school administrators said in a Feb. 10 email to students.

Until that housing opens, students are holding leadership accountable and organizing online under the Instagram account @CalPolyHomeless. The account says it is a "student-run group fighting against the new housing policy" and posts information about protests, opportunities to testify against the policy, and student testimonials about living at Cal Poly Humboldt and in the city of Arcata.

The group's demands include transparency in school and housing decisions, ensuring housing on and off campus meets safety requirements, and that there are decent and acceptable transportation policies.

@hheeyynene Please sing the petition link in my bio! #calpoly #hsu #calpolyhumboldt #humboldtstate #calpolyhomeless #homelessstateuniversity #homeless #collegestudents ♬ This Is America - Childish Gambino

"[The goal] is that every student that needs housing has housing," Calkins said.