An aerial view of Cabrillo College's lower campus
The large area past the softball and baseball fields has been chosen as the preferred spot to build on-campus student housing at Cabrillo College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

A plan for 300 on-campus beds for Cabrillo College students? Here’s how that is taking shape

Cabrillo — and UC Santa Cruz — tried to tap a new $2 billion state fund to build on-campus housing. While it was shut out for the first year of a three-year program, Cabrillo moves ahead with its planning for its first on-campus units.

The affordability crisis has many complex tentacles, but here’s one easy conclusion: It’s hard to study if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep.

The number of Cabrillo College students who say they have experienced housing insecurity (32%) continues to rise while the number of students who can afford to attend community college at the Aptos or Watsonville campuses (roughly 8,500) continues to shrink, recent surveys say.

The orange box marks the preferred area for building on-campus housing at Cabrillo College.
(Via Google)

Faced with those numbers, Cabrillo is now moving forward on a more detailed plan to supply on-campus housing for its students. Though the funding is still speculative at this point, a roughly $50 million project — which could be completed in 2024 at the earliest — would supply housing for about 300 students.

Building affordable on-campus housing isn’t going to solve the housing crisis that has contributed to Cabrillo enrollment plummeting in recent years. But it would make the college a solutions-oriented contributor.

“We want the community to know that we’re a partner not just in education and workforce training, but also in meeting the needs of housing our community,” Bradley Olin, Cabrillo’s assistant superintendent/vice president of finance & administrative services, said. “And we’re taking that seriously.”

Last week, Cabrillo’s board of trustees recommended a “lower fields” site — on the southern end of its Lower Campus, between Highway 1 and Cabrillo College Drive, across the street from Twin Lakes Church. That potential siting is just one piece of what will be multiyear planning.

New state funding spurs planning

As of last year, only 12 of the state’s 116 community colleges offered on-campus housing.

But in late September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 169, allocating $2 billion over three years to the creation of on-campus housing at colleges and universities across the state. That funding — and intention — could serve as a sea change for the vital system of education — formalized as the California Community Colleges system in 1967, with long California roots as “junior colleges,” largely serving commuting students.

That $2 billion Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program covers all three parts of California’s higher-ed system, itself the largest of its kind in the country.

Much like Project Homekey has county officials frothing over an unprecedented windfall of no-strings-attached funding for homelessness, SB 169 has done the same for education leaders across the state.

Both Cabrillo ($47 million) and UC Santa Cruz ($89 million) applied for large sums in October. Funding would have enabled Cabrillo to push aggressively ahead with its 298-unit development. UCSC had asked for help financing its ongoing Kresge College Renewal project, according to a university spokesman.

But only eight schools were granted first-year funding, and neither Cabrillo or UCSC was among them. The first round doled out $470 million to house 3,545 students. Community colleges got the bulk, $215 million, with $135 million going to University of California schools and $120 million to schools in the California State University System.

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Seventy-five different junior colleges got small grants totaling $18 million. Cabrillo’s piece of that was $242,000. Fresno City College ($34 million), College of the Siskiyous in Weed ($33 million), Ventura College ($62 million) and Sierra College in Rocklin ($80 million) were the big winners.

Leaders at both Cabrillo and UCSC say they will try to put themselves in position to bid successfully for second-round funds this fall. If that fails, both hope Year 3 will be the charm.

But the competition is stiff. So any one campus’ chances of getting funded are small — even in one of the least affordable areas in the state.

“It is an interesting game because every other district that did not get funded is going to be in the same position of trying to enhance their proposal,” said Cabrillo President Matthew Wetstein. “There are a couple things we could do, and we need to talk internally as a college about it.

“One is to get some of the planning done, get the environmental impact consultant here and do that work over the next six months. Then we have to start having community meetings that document that we’ve talked to the neighborhood and made them aware of the potential project.”

Cabrillo, which began studying the process of adding campus housing a year ago, must determine its best course of action to create the type of affordable housing it feels it owes the community.

I think the college at this point has seen the demand for Cabrillo to be a partner in housing is one that we cannot ignore.

— Bradley Olin

“I think the college at this point has seen the demand for Cabrillo to be a partner in housing is one that we cannot ignore,” Olin said.

What they hope to build and where

Cabrillo paid a consultant to do a “housing demand and feasibility study” last fall. Jones Lang LaSalle, a firm specializing in housing economic analysis and advising, found that the interest for on-campus housing, for both single students and families, is as high as one would expect in an area that is the third-most expensive rental market in the state, according to a fair market rent survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2021.

While Santa Cruz County students grapple with an average rent of $3,000 per month, students in the Visalia-Porterville area pay less than a third of that ($959).

The report covered rental/affordability market analysis, focus/listening groups with the campus community and surveying of students and employees. Typical of the expected responses: “I know of so many people who have moved away because of the problem,” said one employee surveyed. “This is a difficult place.”

The study pinpointed the number of proposed units at 298. Cabrillo envisions a combination of studio and apartment-style units rather than SRO (single-room occupancy), traditional dormitory-style, said Olin. Also included: child care services and office space for the site manager or director.

The shaded area in gray is where housing is being targeted at Cabrillo.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At the March 14 Cabrillo board meeting, a housing steering committee recommended the lower fields site as the best option, with the tennis courts area as a backup option. It chose the fields site — which is often used for youth soccer practices and tournaments — for its constructability, its proximity to existing utility connections, student support services, parking and/or transportation services and instructional facilities.

The consultant’s feasibility had identified that site among four other possibilities. Those included:

  • A private piece of land above the horticulture center.
  • A hillside location on the upper campus.
  • An existing corporation yard that currently houses the finance administration office, along with purchasing, warehouses and facilities/shop.
  • Existing tennis courts.
The spots considered
The spots considered: (A) a private piece of land, (B) a hillside location, (C) an existing corporation yard, (D) existing tennis courts and (E) the lower fields area.
(Via Cabrillo College)

Olin believes it was clear that the open field beyond the baseball and softball diamonds was the best fit. But he also says the planning process will require paying much attention to concerns about traffic, noise, parking and other impacts, though the preferred site doesn’t abut any current housing.

Cabrillo’s big challenges

Affordable housing is one contributing reason, the college believes, for the downward slide in enrollment it has now seen for more than a decade.

Peaking at about 16,600 in fall 2008, it had dropped to about 11,700 by fall 2019. Then the pandemic turned the slide into a plummet with the 18% drop in a single year to about 9,600 — and it has dropped by 1,000 students more over the past year.

That puts the housing development front and center for Cabrillo administrators. But what if they can’t get the $50 million from the state?

Cabrillo President Matthew Wetstein explains the complicated path ahead for on-campus housing.

Wetstein says the college could partner with local foundations to offset some of the funding costs, asking the state for a smaller amount. It could also partner with private investors or borrow money on the open market — but both could work against the primary goal of keeping the units as affordable as possible.

“The short answer is we’re going to have to get creative,” Olin said.

The college, then, plans to get moving on the environmental impact process and begin public outreach, while forming a funding strategy. The best-case scenario for breaking ground? “Sometime in 2024,” Olin said.

Wetstein says he’s hopeful that lessons learned from the first round of grant applications can be applied to Round 2.

“That would be my hope,” he said. “That we’re going to be able to say, ‘We’re further along in our planning, we’ve got a good project that pencils out well on the metrics that you’re using,’ and hopefully we’re competitive for that second pot of money.”