College of the Canyons’ board of trustees held a special meeting on Thursday to review and comment on the operating costs and anticipated revenue of its planned affordable student housing project.
The project secured a $61.9 million grant earlier this year — a culmination of lobbying and various actions to support students’ basic needs such as housing, food and transportation security.
The grant paves the way for construction to begin on a 91,000-square-foot, three-story building to be placed where Parking Lot Six is today on COC’s Valencia campus. The development would include 100 units, with more than 220 beds. Monthly rent would range from $500 to $1,000 per person depending on how many beds per unit there are.
Common space will include a lobby, laundry room, mail room, study areas, a game room, offices, a lecture room and other amenities.
Area 3 Trustee Sebastian Cazares heralded the project as an advancement for disenfranchised students looking to better their socioeconomic standings.
“I want to say that in a period of skyrocketing student debt, health care costs, gentrification, housing insecurity and difficult conversations we’ve had about communities that have been wronged and maltreated for far too long, highlighting socioeconomic injustice is now more than ever is a time to embody the principles and make community colleges stand out to other institutions … this project symbolizes a commitment to change that reality.”
In 2022, the Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program, Assembly Bill 183, was passed, and approved funding allocations for community college affordable housing projects.
To be eligible, students must be enrolled at COC full-time and be considered “low-income.” This is determined by a student’s ability to qualify for the federal Pell Grant, the state CalGrant, the community college enrollment fee waiver (California College Promise Grant) or for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Joan MacGregor, who represents Trustee Area 5, left the board’s previous meeting on June 14 because she felt the process, which she described as “terrible,” had moved too fast and had developments without her approval and that the board had been “surprised and rushed” by the process.
“I still feel this is not the college’s role to do housing for disadvantaged students or for homeless students. I don’t think that’s the college’s role,” said MacGregor. “On the other hand, I would do anything for any of our students and for anyone who’s homeless … I just am looking at our ongoing responsible provisions for this college and I know you’re all very smart but this is the first time we’ve gotten into this and you’re on a learning curve, too.”
While housing at community colleges has existed for decades, having dedicated affordable housing is a part of growing trend statewide as the cost of living increases.
Other community colleges receiving state money have devised similar programs for low-income students. Compton College recently announced a four-story, 250-bed facility to house homeless and low-income students, with construction expected to start in 2024.
Plans to build affordable housing for 400 community college students at Cerritos College have also recently been announced. Several other California community colleges are also positioning themselves to spend grant money on housing and affordable housing.
The grant COC is receiving comes with a “break even” requirement, which means the campus’ expenses must match, or be less than, the revenue.
Local activist Steve Petzold raised several concerns in his letter to the board ahead of Thursday’s meeting and touched on several topics — including lack of transparency with the project, inadequate pro forma statement, concerns regarding the campus’ ability to break even on the project and several others.
“The dormitory proposal has been used to exploit the homeless issue while advancing personal interests and to pay off labor unions for political support,” wrote Petzold. “I request that you act in a rational manner, in the best interest of the district and return the funding to the state of California.”
Renee Roque, who serves on the Homeless Task Force for the city of Santa Clarita, said she supported the project because she believed low-income students should just have to focus on their studies and their grades. The rising cost of living, according to Roque, is also at the cost of students trying to receive an education.
“There’s nothing under $2,000 for an apartment. We’re blessed to live here where there’s a lot of opportunity … We understand that here in Santa Clarita, we are a place of abundance and we all live here with our families and we move here for that. But, also understand that there are students who are looking for a better way of life.”
A pro forma, outlining the projected costs and revenue, and an environmental scan are each dependent on a defined project scope, which the meeting aimed to develop.