In the middle of all the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the community of Isla Vista seems to be plagued with yet another challenge: an unprecedented housing shortage.
UC Santa Barbara students are scrambling to find housing near the oceanfront campus just weeks before the 2021-22 school year is set to begin, with some desperately considering living in their cars or tents just to attend classes at the prestigious four-year university.
“I was literally crying on the phone with the university housing department. What am I supposed to do? I’ve never been homeless in my life,” Alexandria Matthews, a third-year UCSB transfer student, told Noozhawk. “My education is my No. 1 priority, so I’ll just sleep in my car if I have to.”
The Isla Vista community is home to thousands of UCSB and Santa Barbara City College students, in addition to longtime residents, because of its proximity to the UCSB campus.
While many factors play into the current housing crisis, including the university’s high enrollment rates and the amount of university housing, many students are blaming what they see as UCSB’s lack of communication about the return to in-person classes and housing opportunities.
Numerous students told Noozhawk that UCSB did not announce the return to in-person classes for the 2021-22 fall term until a few months before the start of the school year, leaving students with little time to figure out their living situations.
“(The university) kept saying, ‘We will not force you to go in-person,’ ‘there will be lots of options for online classes.’ I talked to three people at the college throughout the summer, and then I went to plan out my classes at the end of July and suddenly they’re all in person,” Matthews said. “UCSB has really let me down, and now I will probably be living in my car for a while just due to the fact that they messed up.”
Naresh Pillay, a graduating economics major, told Noozhawk that many students hadn’t signed the 12-month leases in February or March as they normally would because of the COVID-19 situation at the time and because the university did not have a clear plan on whether classes were going to be in-person or online until the middle of summer. UCSB held almost all of its 2020-21 classes online.
“This caused a scramble for both the new and returning students very late in the time period of the housing search, which has caused a lot of these issues,” he said.
Michelle Roberson, owner of Sierra Property Management Co., said that all of Sierra’s leases were filled by mid- to late July, and there is no available housing for the student population.
“The demand for housing is really high right now. We get contacted several times a day by people looking for housing preferably in Isla Vista,” Roberson told Noozhawk. “But they’re getting pretty desperate now, so people are even looking for places farther away.”
Roberson said that the leasing situation has been “tenuous” with a “whole lot of maybes” as students did not know if they would be returning to campus.
“It was almost a perfect storm. At the same time the university was making their offers to people and letting freshmen know that they didn’t have enough housing for them was the same time they announced the return to in-person classes,” she said. “The returning students who just found out they could come back, those were the people that got left behind.”
Students have posted on Reddit forums asking if there are places they can sleep in tents in Isla Vista because of the lack of housing, and other students have offered insight on how to live out of cars and where to park them long term in Isla Vista.
Wesley Denstaedt, a fifth-year UCSB student, said that all of the Facebook housing pages seem to be about a 10-to-1 ratio of those looking for housing versus those looking to fill spots.
“At this point, I’m super anxious about finding housing to return to UCSB. I’m trying to console myself that I should be lucky enough to have a vehicle to sleep in by that time,” he said.
Another factor that plays into the housing shortage is that the amount of university-owned housing has not kept up with enrollment increases.
The university has admitted a growing number of students since the 2010-11 school year, and new student enrollment has increased by nearly 2,000 in that 10-year period. The university has added 1,515 new beds to its housing inventory since 2010, according to Andrea Estrada, spokeswoman for UCSB.
The university’s eight freshman dorms can house 4,875 residents in total, and the university-owned Tropicana Gardens in Isla Vista can house 550. There are 725 apartment units that are saved for upperclassmen off-campus, according to the university’s housing website.
Increasing enrollment and stagnant housing opportunities have caused a waitlist for university housing of more than 900 students for this academic year, according to Zachary Brennan, Isla Vista Tenant Union’s legal director.
Shelly Leachman, a UCSB spokeswoman, said the university is “planning to maximize our campus, including the use of triples, and are exploring several options to assist students who are having a difficult time finding housing.”
Leachman said that UCSB is not alone in the present housing challenges, and “the market is just extremely tight for anyone looking to move, not just students.”
In a meeting between some members of the university’s Associated Students and the vice chancellor of student affairs, Margaret Klawuun, Klawuun said that the university is prioritizing first-year students and transfer students for university housing, according to reports out of that meeting.
In order to keep up with the demand for housing, the university resorted to asking neighboring Goleta residents to consider leasing any empty rooms in their houses to students.
“Due to a shortage of availability in the community, some UCSB students are finding themselves without options for housing in the fall. If you have an extra room in your home, please consider the possibility of opening up your space and renting to UCSB students,” the message wrote.
After the message was released, a Change.org petition was made to put pressure on the university to address the housing shortages.
“UCSB has failed to adequately address this situation, and a growing number of students and/or their parents are concerned they will be homeless, living out of their cars or be unable to begin studies at UCSB at all,” the petition wrote.
As of Tuesday, nearly 1,800 people had signed the petition.
Nick Thomas, a third-year environmental studies major, said that after not being able to finish his first year of college on campus because of the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he is now forced to take the fall term off from UCSB and take online classes at SBCC because of the inability to find housing.
“I thought a top UC would be able to accommodate their students by giving them housing options instead of taking in more than they can put into housing,” Thomas told Noozhawk. “The school then continues to put the responsibility not only on the students, but also the surrounding community members by asking for people to open their extra rooms for students.
“It’s quite unfortunate to see what the students have been going through. Lots of us put in countless hours to make sure we have a bright future ahead, and it sucks that we have had such a large roadblock due to the decisions made by the chancellor and staff.”
On top of the university housing shortage, many students told Noozhawk that they were frustrated by the lack of help from the university during the housing search.
One second-year biology major told Noozhawk that without the help from fellow students and staff about housing options and advice that usually comes with in-person orientation, students who were freshmen in the 2020-21 school year did not have the opportunities to connect with housing services about options.
“For those of us who stayed home our first year and are unfamiliar with UCSB/Isla Vista life, we were given little instruction from UCSB about how to find rental listings in Isla Vista,” she said. “Since second-years are generally expected to live off campus, this was important information.”
Matthews, the third-year transfer student, said the university just told her to check on Craigslist or Facebook housing pages.
The university hasn’t been “transparent about anything,” Brennan said, which leaves students asking the Isla Vista Tenants Union questions that even it is unsure how to answer.
“Most of the issue is that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Brennan said. “We have this Delta variant, and we have school starting up again, and then on top of that there’s this huge housing shortage.”
Ed St. George of the St. George and Associates property management company said that the university doesn’t do an adequate job explaining how to navigate housing in Isla Vista.
“One of the things that UCSB does that is a huge, huge detriment, in my opinion, to the students is that every single summer they tell the students to wait to look for places to live,” St. George told Noozhawk. “So the city college kids started looking sooner, and the university has told all these kids to wait to start looking, and then all the places are gone.”
Because housing near SBCC also fills up quickly, many of those students end up leasing in Isla Vista, St. George said.
“UCSB needs to understand that city college starts first, and since there’s no place to live downtown, the city college kids take up a tremendous amount of Isla Vista housing, and I think it’s a tremendous disservice to the UCSB students. Isla Vista was designed for the university.”
SBCC started classes Monday, and UCSB starts classes for its fall quarter on Sept. 23.
Once UCSB announced the return to in-person classes, all of the St. George and Associates properties were leased out within a two-week period, he said.
“There are a lot of problems at play, and they’re all connected,” Brennan said. “We have students who are thinking they are going to be living in their cars or buying a camper to live in. It’s just a huge housing crisis.”