Got a spare apartment? Thousands of UC San Diego students need a place to live

Athena Leisching, a junior at UCSD, is struggling to find affordable off-campus housing.
Athena Leisching, a junior at UCSD, is struggling to find affordable off-campus housing.
(Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Nearly 3,200 people are on waiting lists as the campus grapples with more growth

Cody Huynh showed up at a condo in La Jolla recently hoping to find a place to rent after UC San Diego hit him with unexpected news — it had run out of undergraduate housing for the fall quarter.

Things were worse than he imagined.

“Three other families were there looking to rent the same place,” said Huynh, a sophomore from Anaheim. “I’m feeling anxious. I don’t know where I’m going to live.”

Thousands of UCSD students are facing the same uncertainty.

For years, the school has increased enrollment faster than it has added housing. A record number of students — possibly as many as 41,000 — are expected when classes begin on September 23. And this fall’s housing supply is complicated by Covid-19 — UCSD is sticking with its pandemic-related decision to reduce density in housing, eliminating 2,074 beds.

The result is a housing shortage that is sparking anger, confusion and fear among students, many who believed they were guaranteed housing and say they weren’t warned clearly that a problem was brewing. Some also are astonished to learn that they now need to look for living quarters off campus, tossing them into one of the priciest and most competitive rental markets in Southern California.

UCSD students walk across campus in September 2019.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The university, which has under-estimated its fall enrollment several times in recent years, says that 3,153 students are on waiting lists for campus housing. Nearly 1,900 are graduate students, at least 800 of whom are likely to get a bed. The other 1,267 — nearly all of them sophomores — are on a separate list, and their outlook isn’t promising.

UCSD says it would like to accommodate everyone; living on campus gives younger students time to adjust to being away from home. And university officials say they realize that this year’s sophomores had to deal with the trauma of the pandemic, which denied many students the chance to enjoy the freshman dorm experience.

But all of the university’s 17,536 beds have been claimed. And only those near the top of a computer-generated wait list for sophomores and other second-years will likely get picked if there are cancellations.

“I am beyond livid,” said Hanna Kim, a sophomore from San Diego. “This is not what I signed up for.”

Feeding frenzy

Holly Fleurbaaig moves her belongings into the dormitories with her dad Graham in 2020
(Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Living on campus isn’t always cheaper than staying elsewhere. It’s common for students to cram together in private, off-campus housing, reducing the amount of rent they pay individually.

But campus prices tend to be more predictable, and UCSD sells the experience hard, saying online: “Roll out of bed. Walk to class. Lunch with friends. Quick nap. Afternoon lecture. Sunset surfing at the beach. Study session with suitemates. Movie night in the lounge.”

Plans vary. But an undergraduate can expect to pay from $13,466 to $17,215 for room and board in a single room for the coming academic year. That works out to about $1,494 to $1,911 a month.

Off-campus, the market is more volatile, especially in a place like La Jolla, where students have to compete with the region’s huge life science workforce for housing.

The average rent in University City, or UTC, was $2,745 a month in the second quarter of this year. The average had fallen during the pandemic. Now, it’s up nearly 16 percent in a year.

Things aren’t much better elsewhere.

San Diego County is experiencing a big shortage of affordable rentals. The average rent in San Diego County hit $2,009 a month in the second quarter of 2021, according to real estate tracker CoStar’s database of 270,596 units. It’s gone up 8.4 percent in a year.

The pandemic is contributing to the problem. Many renters who have the income and ability to work from home are staying put, which limits the turnover in apartments and condos.

Relentless rise of rents

“I’ve been religiously looking for an apartment for three months,” said Athena Leisching, a UCSD junior whose lease in off-campus housing at UTC expires this week.

“I wake up in the morning and check Zillow and Craig’s List and Apartments.com and Realtor’s blogs and I’m not finding anything.”

Parents also are on edge.

“We live in Bay Area and since we only came to know about this situation in late June/ early July, it is probably too late to start finding a decent apartment within commutable distance to the campus,” Mala Tangirala said in an email. Her daughter Akhila is about to begin her sophomore year.

“We didn’t plan on getting her a car and are now at a loss on what we are going to do come September. We are desperately trying to find housing (which is super expensive by the way) and have had no luck so far.”

Nikki Webber of Santa Cruz, whose daughter Lani is entering her sophomore year, is also worried about money.

“I saved enough to pay for on-campus housing. Now, I may have to pay for off-campus,” Webber said. “I’m going to have to dig deep.”

Diane Birmingham of Burlingame said in an email that her son, who is transferring to the university this fall, “is beginning to feel that it might not be the right place for him. There appears to be no solution offered by UCSD, and landlords are taking advantage of the rush to rent and jacking up rent prices sky high.”

Mixed signals

Consumer demand is largely responsible for the housing problems that exist at many of the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses. The system added almost 40,000 freshmen and transfer students in the past five years, creating the need for more housing for current and future students, according to a new report by Public Policy Institute of California, a Sacramento-based think tank.

La Jolla has been a focal point of the expansion. Since 2015, UCSD has increased its undergraduate enrollment by 5,252 — more than any other UC school. Not so long ago, there were seven towering construction cranes on campus, some devoted to creating housing.

The boom has been well-publicized. But many students and their parents say that UCSD didn’t apprise them in a clear, timely way that enrollment growth and the pandemic were going to lead to a big housing shortage during a year in which enrollment is expected to set a record.

The university did send students an email in April that suggested that there was trouble ahead for many sophomores.

UCSD said housing priority would go to certain student scholars, new freshmen and transfer students, and “second-years” (nearly all sophomores) who lived on campus during the 2020-21 academic year. Second-years who had lived off campus would have to submit their names for a computerized lottery.

“Campus housing offers were made based on priority and space availability,” Hemlata Jhaveri, executive director of Housing, Dining & Hospitality at UCSD, told the Union-Tribune.

“That’s been true since the pandemic. We’ve really been communicating as things change every single quarter because things have changed so much.”

The possibility of another big wave of growth is causing its own set of problems

Students and parents have a different interpretation. Many say that the April email was vague and that a July 6th message telling students they didn’t get an on-campus bed was abrupt and failed to offer the kind of follow-on help that they need to deal with the shortage. Students also say that UCSD has shown very little empathy.

“It seems sort of dishonest from the university because they were encouraging students to live off campus during the start of Covid last year,” Javier Guerrero, a sophomore from Imperial Valley, said in an email.

Webber also said that “the administration asked first-year students not to live on campus if it wasn’t imperative (to save the dorms for international students and others who would suffer the loss of their student visas, etc.) ...

"(Lani) decided to forgo her room out of the generosity of spirit and hoped that she would realize her dream of the college experience this year.”

Many students and their parents also are unhappy that UCSD decided during the pandemic to stop allowing for “triples,” or rooms that hold three students. The decision wiped out nearly 2,100 beds.

Maryanne Milker of Huntington Beach, whose son is a sophomore at UCSD, expressed her displeasure on a Facebook page that’s open only to parents whose kids attend the university.

“While other colleges across the country are converting doubles to triples, converting lounges to housing and prioritizing students who have never lived on-campus this year, UCSD has done the reverse,” Milker wrote.

“For students like my son, those decisions mean he will likely have to pay more for housing further away and lose his one opportunity to live on campus and make the strong connections that make UCSD not just a school, but a community.”

UC Irvine, which will house upwards of 15,000 students this fall, has triples and plans to keep them, at least for the moment. UCSD won’t do that.

Jhaveri said the pandemic “has really helped us understand the importance of having space to ensure that we do not compromise the student experience.”

Her statement comes as coronavirus infections are ticking upward after a long decline. Los Angeles County has decided that starting Saturday night, residents were again required to wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of their vaccination status.

Jhaveri addressed the pain students are feeling, telling the Union-Tribune: “We’re taking calls every single day, we’re responding to emails. I have personally spoken to parents. I know my office is very engaged with parents. We understand their disappointment, we understand their anxiety. We are working with our off-campus partners closely.”

Difficult future

Students walk toward the entrance of the Geisel Library at the UCSD campus in 2019.
(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

UCSD hoped to avoid the sort of housing shortage it is experiencing now. The campus has added 5,141 undergraduate beds since 2010. And Chancellor Pradeep Khosla has grand plans for the campus. He said in 2017 he hopes the school will reach the point where it could “provide a four-year housing guarantee for undergraduates and Ph.D students at 20 percent below market cost.”

But UCSD is at risk of being overrun by demand. Enrollment jumped by 2,174 in 2018 — twice the projected increase.

“That was an anomaly; we weren’t expecting it,” Khosla told the Union-Tribune. “We need to be a little more measured and controlled.”

Enrollment grew by 835 in 2019 and by 850 in 2020, during the pandemic. Another big leap is expected in September and possibly a larger surge in 2022. The Legislature is considering adding 6,200 undergraduates to the UC system’s undergraduate enrollment. That doesn’t affect this year’s enrollment figures.

The relentless growth drew a suggestion from Sam Fakhimi of Bonita, whose daughter, Isabella, is among the many UCSD sophomores currently searching for off-campus housing.

“Maybe what UCSD should do,” he said, “is cap its enrollment for five years and let the infrastructure catch up. A lot of students aren’t getting the kind of experience they want.”